for National Geographic News
More than 7,000 live monitor lizards, almost 900 owls—plucked and plastic wrapped for easy cooking—and other wild animals were seized in two raids in a single week by Malaysian officials earlier this month.
Experts on illegal wildlife trade expressed astonishment at the huge number of rare owls seized.
"It's the first time we've ever seen a big shipment like this of owls," said Chris Shepherd, a senior program officer for the wildlife trade monitoring network TRAFFIC.
The scale of both hauls indicates that Asian wildlife smuggling is growing more sophisticated, Shepherd said.
"Shipments this size show that the trade is becoming more and more organized by syndicates, rather than just opportunistic individuals trying to make a buck off a few animals," said Shepherd, based in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.
The first of the two raids—carried out by the country's Department of Wildlife and National Parks—took place on November 4 in the town of Muar on the southern tip of Malaysia.
In a freezer and storage room, agents found 796 barn owls, 95 spotted wood-owls, 14 buffy fish-owls, 8 barred eagle-owls, and 4 brown wood-owls.
The owls, smaller than chickens, had been frozen. Their feathers had been removed, but their heads and feet were intact—a sign that the owls were to be sold as food. The birds are also in demand in Guangzhou, China, where they are sold in wine as tonics and cures for headaches.
"I've heard of owls being used for superstition and in traditional medicine, but I've never heard of anybody eating them," said Colin Poole, director of the Asia program for the Wildlife Conservation Society.
"There must be some market specifically for owls."
The haul also included live monitor lizards and live juvenile wild pigs. Only parts were found from other animals: wild pig, Malayan porcupine, reticulated python, Malayan pangolin, greater mouse deer, and sun bear (sun bear photo and facts).
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