Customs officers have a very difficult job. Generally speaking, when a customs officer decides to stop a shipment, they really are not sure what they may expect to find within. Sure, nine times out of 10, what is inside will be perfectly legal and innocuous. However, there are those few times when that’s not the case, and occasionally, what’s within can be very disturbing.
A Strange Day
It was looking to be a rough day at the office for customs authorities in China one day in July, as they found something that looked to be a little bit disconcerting at first, and ultimately quite illegal upon further investigation. For officers that had seen just about everything in their careers, this was a truly unpredictable day that none of them were bound to forget in the future.
It all started when the customs officers stopped a truck that had a shipment in the back. The customs officers were just doing their normal routine, giving everything a once over to make sure it was above board. However, when they saw a crate that was supposed to be empty but actually contained bags within, they were on high alert. The smell coming from the bags made them more suspicious yet.
Shipment Of Goods
This all took place in July 2017, although the details were not revealed to the public until months later, on November 29, 2017. The location was Shenzhen, an area of China not normally known for a whole lot of excitement. The goods were coming into the port of the Yantian District. Officers were originally suspicious of the circumstances of the delivery itself, leading to the check.
Lies And Mistruths
In cases where shipments must be checked, people who have nothing to hide are generally very easy to spot. They are honest, don’t appear to be nervous, and are quite calm about having to talk to customs officers. This is not the case with those that are breaking the law. Lawbreakers who have to deal with customs officers often seem very antsy and are likely to lie about even the most benign details.
Not Empty After All
What was the lie that made the customs officers suspicious? Well, the driver had declared that a large shipping crate within was empty. The crate was about to leave the port when customs officers decided to check it out, as a matter of fact. The first thing that raised eyebrows around the area was that there were bags inside, so the container was clearly not empty.
A Surprise Find
The Dapeng Customs Anti-Smuggling Branch opened up the crate. The officers were certainly not sure of what they might find inside. Could there be drugs, or something just as illegal, but infinitely more horrifying? It’s pretty certain that many customs officers have found some strange things on the job, so nobody could be sure what to expect as they opened up the cargo for a look.
What’s In The Sacks?
Inside the crate were canvas sacks, all of which were blue and red-colored. The officers knew that they weren’t empty as soon as they looked. But what was within them? Within moments, it was decided that one of the customs officers would cut a single sack open. They smartly chose the one that was closest to the door of the container and got ready for what might be inside.
There Must Be More
What they found only gave them more questions while failing to answer any of the questions that they had already had earlier. Looking inside, all that was within the sack were chunks of coal. There was certainly nothing illegal about transporting coal, so normally the shipment may have been approved to leave. But if it was just coal, why didn’t the shipper declare it instead of pretending the container was empty?
Animal Products Inside
That question was certainly on all of the customs officers’ minds as they continued their investigation, but again, it wasn’t the only question they had. Not by a long shot, in fact. That’s because although what they found looked like no big deal, the smell that it was giving off was quite off-putting. Instantly, the experienced officers knew what they were dealing with. There were animal products inside somewhere.
Calling In Backup
Due to the smell, the customs officers did not feel that it would be smart to take any chances. As a result, they called in a quarantine department to handle the situation safely and properly. When the department arrived, the investigation continued as all of the workers on site decided to start opening the hundreds of bags found in the crate.
At first, customs officers were puzzled. They just kept finding more and more coal. However, with the stench that was coming from the container, there was no way that they were going to leave even a single bag uninspected. Instead, they continued forward, and sure enough, they eventually found that some of the bags had something besides coal within them.
The customs officers found out the contents of the bags that day, but the rest of the world had to wait four months. It was then that the customs officers uploaded a video that would reveal the container’s contents to the world. The video was taken by CGTN and uploaded to Facebook when it was deemed okay to make the content public, on November 30.
A Disturbing Find
The video made it clear that the contents were not only expected but pretty messed up, as well. As explained in captions during the video, the preliminary inspection “determined that they were pangolin scales.” That may not be entirely surprising, but what was shocking was the amount contained within: a remarkable 13.1 tons of pangolin scales!
Record Setting Crime
As we discussed earlier, it’s pretty tempting to say that customs officers have probably seen just about everything while looking for crooks and smugglers. However, the sheer amount of pangolin scales was completely unprecedented in China. To put it all in perspective, the previous largest pangolin scale bust was just 3.4 tons!
This means that the July pangolin scale bust included nearly 10 tons more pangolin scales than the previous largest bust on record. Even if you multiplied the previous record of 3.4 tons by three times, it wouldn’t have been as large as the bust that the customs authorities stopped in Shenzhen on that fateful July day. What a staggering find it was indeed, as the scales could have come from 30,000 pangolins!
Finding the Culprits
Detecting the suspicious shipment was easy enough, but determining the origin of the illegal shipment was going to be harder than the authorities thought. After all, they hadn’t been transported in person to be shipped out, as the criminal wouldn’t be that dumb. However, the customs authorities had a slight lead that could help them out.
The lead insisted that people of the surnames Xia and Hua were involved in the illegal pangolin scale shipment. This information was later reported on the news website Dayoo. However, that wasn’t going to make it all that much easier to find the culprits. Those behind the illegal shipment may not even have ever stepped foot within China, after all!
Teamwork Among Police
The customs officers knew right away that they would have to work together with other bureaus to find the culprits behind the record-setting illegal shipment. An anti-smuggling police unit was called in to help out. Experts worked hard to determine the point of origin of the pangolin scales, which were found to be from Africa. Using these facts, the number of suspects was whittled down.
Narrowing Down The List
Using the information that they had originally, authorities had a short list of dozens of suspects that had been traveling throughout Africa at the right time to set up the shipment. The customs authorities and smuggling agents began looking into them and worked to narrow down the list of suspects, however, and eventually were able to take two men, Mr. He and Mr. Li into custody.
Not Willing To Confess
Although both men, as expected, originally disputed that they had been involved in the situation, the authorities saw right through their explanations and continued to doubt them. Li, in particular, was found to be “rich in experience,” according to reporting by Dayoo. He had a reputation that led authorities to believe that no matter what he said, they had found their man.
Worse yet, Li’s cell phone had tons of pictures of pangolin scales. You would think that with that evidence, Li would have confessed to the crime in order to hopefully reduce his eventual punishment, but he did not do so. In fact, he continued to emphatically deny any involvement. His excuse for the cell phone? He said that he bought it from someone else and the pictures weren’t his.
They Knew He Did It
Authorities looked more closely at the photographs, of course. When they did, they were able to find a surprising piece of evidence within them: a person’s foot. In particular, the left foot of the photographer was in the frame. It was a bare foot, and there was a distinctive mole on that foot that matched a mole on Li’s foot. The evidence left him no choice but to confess.
Additional Details Emerged
As Li’s possible courses of action dwindled down to simply confessing, details on the crime started to emerge. Li said that he had flown with Hi to Africa on the same flight. Furthermore, evidence was found that there had been a total of over $758,000 in business deals between Li and He. Authorities discovered that Li was the one who collected the scales, with He receiving shipments and selling them.
Giant Crime Ring?
Obviously, the criminals Li and He had been arrested as evidence of their criminal actions was made clear. The General Administration of Customs had actually been looking out for these kinds of schemes for some time, and they were aware that false coal shipments could be used as a sort of cover-up for them. They believed that Li and He weren’t working alone.
Huge Smuggling Conspiracy
The customs department and anti-smuggling department were together in their belief that Li and He were not working alone, but instead were part of something much bigger. They actually thought that there was an organized gang of criminals that were working together to poach and smuggle pangolin scales all over the world.
Pangolins Are Harmless Animals
This is a particularly heinous crime because pangolins have been poached for smuggling purposes so often that they are highly endangered. Of course, this endangerment only drives up black market prices for their scales, so criminals have not yet been deterred by the protections that authorities around the world have given to the animals.
Sought After By Poachers
For a little background on the information, pangolins are not harmful whatsoever and are actually very mild-mannered animals. They are known principally for being timid and shy. In fact, they will famously roll themselves into little balls when they are frightened. Unfortunately, this can make them an easy target for those that want to poach them for their valuable scales.
Supposed Medicinal Value
Why are their scales so valuable? As with any questions regarding illegal activities, there are a lot of potential answers for this. Although there are a number of reasons that pangolin scales have become highly sought after by criminals and purchased by people in China and elsewhere, one reason stands out: Chinese medicine holds that pangolin scales can treat asthma, arthritis, and cancer, despite a lack of evidence.
Also, pangolin meat is considered a delicacy in many areas. It apparently must be, because even the prison sentences that await smugglers have not seemed to cut down on the demand for the poor creatures’ meat. Instead, the effect only seems to make pangolin meat even more sought after. Perhaps the illegal nature of the meat makes it more desired somehow.
Working To Preserve Pangolins
Although smuggling of pangolin scales for profit may continue to be an issue, customs officers are working to stop the practice. Shenzhen customs officers have doubled down their efforts to stop such smugglers since July. In addition, the International Fund for Animal Welfare has said that more needs to be done to avoid the extinction of pangolins in the next few decades.