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Watch: 101 Pangolins Destined for Black Market Rescued from Fishing Boat

The seizure points to a changing tactic among wildlife smugglers.

More than a hundred pangolins have been rescued alive after an anti-smuggling raid on a fishing boat off the east coast of Sumatra on October 24.

Indonesian authorities arrested two men who were allegedly paid to transport the scaly mammals to Malaysia, according to a press release from the Indonesian Navy, which was tipped off by members of the community.

The seizure lays bare pangolin smugglers’ changing M.O. Whereas they used to rely on large freezer shipping containers that only major international ports could accommodate, smugglers are increasingly making smaller—but more regular—shipments of live pangolins through remote seaports, says Dwi Adhiasto, a wildlife trade expert at the Wildlife Conservation Society’s Indonesia office.

“After border protection by the Indonesian customs increased and more than 10 arrests with tons of frozen pangolins happened in the [major] seaports, the traffickers changed their modus,” he wrote in an email.

Pangolins are believed to the the world’s most trafficked mammal, with tens of thousands poached each year. About the size of a domestic cat, they’re often called “scaly anteaters” and may have been the inspiration behind the Pokémon Sandshrew. When threatened, pangolins curl up into a ball like an armadillo—good protection from predators, but it makes them easy prey for poachers.

A thriving black market for pangolins exists in Asia, especially Vietnam and China, where their meat is considered a delicacy, and their scales are sometimes used in traditional medicine, even though it has no scientifically proven curative value. There’s even a dish called pangolin fetus soup, believed to enhance a man’s virility. The scales of a single pangolin can have a street value of $2,700, according to some reports. (Read more: Pangolins just got some desperately needed help.)

It’s unknown exactly how many pangolins are left in the wild, but scientists have classified the four Asian species as endangered or critically endangered, meaning they face a very high risk of extinction. Africa’s four pangolin species, which aren’t endangered but are still considered vulnerable, are coming under increasing pressure as traffickers target them more often.

Four of the 101 pangolins seized from the fishing boat later died. A spokesman said the rest will be released into the nearest national park, according to AFP. Still, there’s no guarantee they won’t be captured again by poachers.

Indonesia has emerged as a popular transit country for the illegal wildlife trade, which is estimated to be worth several billion dollars a year, according to the United Nations. The illegal wildlife trade in Indonesia is typically conducted by local people who poach the animals and sell them to dealers and criminal syndicates to be smuggled out of the country.

The suspects arrested in this case face up to five years in jail and a fine of up to $7,300, more than half Indonesia’s per capita GDP.

Read more stories about wildlife crime and exploitation on National Geographic’s Wildlife Watch. Send tips, feedback, and story ideas to ngwildlife@natgeo.com.