When Chinese Customs Seized This Shipping Crate, The Cargo Inside Was Truly Heartbreaking

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When Chinese customs officers stopped a dubious-looking shipment, they couldn’t be sure exactly what horrors they’d find within. Still, the mere presence of bags inside a supposedly empty crate was suspicious, and as the team searched the container, they noticed something sinister: a rotten odor was coming from inside.

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On November 29, 2017, customs authorities in Shenzhen, China, revealed that they’d made a startling discovery. Yes, back in July of that same year, the team had stopped a shipment of goods coming into Yantian District’s port. And while officials knew that suspicious circumstances surrounded the crate, they weren’t sure of its precise contents.

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In fact, the crate – a big shipping container – had been declared as empty, and it very nearly left the port. But before the shipment could disembark, officers from the Dapeng Customs Anti-Smuggling Branch intercepted it. And when the team inspected the metal container, they found that it wasn’t actually empty.

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The container was in fact filled with blue and red canvas sacks, each of which were bulging at the seams. But officers still weren’t sure what the bags contained. So the team grabbed a sack from near the door and proceeded to cut it open. Inside the bag, the officials found nothing but chunks of coal; but why hadn’t the cargo been declared on the manifest?

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On closer inspection, there was something else off about the shipping crate, too: the investigators noticed a strange “fishy odor” permeating the air inside. What’s more, it was a smell with which they were all too familiar: the rotten stench of animal products.

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Subsequently, the quarantine department was also called in to aid the customs officers. Together the team then discovered that the shipping crate was carrying hundreds of bags – but that not all of them contained coal. Yes, as the officers searched the sacks from further inside the crate, they discovered something much more troubling.

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It was Chinese media outlet CGTN that broke the news of the disturbing discovery. On November 30, 2017, the news channel posted a video on Facebook that revealed the container’s true horrific contents. “Our preliminary inspection determined they were pangolin scales,” the captions explained, but the sheer amount of scales was mind-boggling. You see, the bags contained a whopping 13.1 tons of scales.

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And not only is that a shockingly huge confiscation, but it’s also a record for the Chinese customs authorities. In fact, the substantial seizure is significantly larger than any other pangolin scale bust; the previous largest was a 3.4-ton seizure from Shanghai. Alarmingly, too, experts believe that the scales could have come from as many as 30,000 pangolins. Finding the culprits of this troubling crime wouldn’t be easy, though.

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You see, there was very little information about the illegal shipment aside from a seemingly cryptic name. According to the news website Dayoo, the shipment was attributed to “XIA × HUA.” It was unclear, then, who this was. What’s more, those responsible may not have even been in the country.

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Subsequently, a police team specializing in anti-smuggling techniques were called in to help, and the experts narrowed down the search by identifying the pangolin scales as African in origin. The team then used data analysis to pinpoint a number of potential suspects.

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Then after some of the leads came to dead ends, the authorities were able to narrow down their list even further. Eventually, officials focused on two people with the surnames He and Li, and the duo were taken into custody for questioning.

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Described by Dayoo as “rich in experience,” Li refuted any accusations that he was involved. In fact, after a cell phone loaded with images of pangolin scales was found on his person, Li continued to proclaim his innocence. Yes, Li told police that he had purchased the phone second-hand shortly before his arrest.

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There was one damning piece of evidence in the pictures, though: the photographer’s left foot was visible on camera; and the foot, which has a mole on it, was subsequently matched to Li’s own. After the link had been made, Li’s story then crumbled, and the extent of his crimes were revealed.

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It turned out that Li and He had been running an expansive operation. Indeed, experts uncovered business deals of more than $758,000 between the partners in crime. Investigators also discovered that Li was responsible for collecting the scales before shipping them to He, who subsequently sold their abhorrent product.

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The pair of criminals were subsequently arrested, and their actions have also alerted China’s General Administration of Customs. The agency has been on the lookout for leads and are now investigating other similar schemes – including falsely labelling imports of coal. What’s more, it’s possible that Li and He weren’t working alone.

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The duo may in fact have been part of an organized gang of smugglers who continue to operate. Hopefully, though, the bust has been a major blow to their operation. Heaven knows, pangolins need all the protection they can get. After all, poaching and smuggling mean that the adorable creatures are now highly endangered.

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Pangolins are timid and shy creatures, and they roll into balls when scared. But although the thought of such harmless creatures being hunted is repulsive to most people, pangolins are actually the most trafficked mammal in the world. And it seems that Traditional Chinese medicine is largely to blame for their struggle.

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You see, some branches of traditional medicine believe that ingesting pangolin parts can cure illnesses and ailments. And while no scientific evidence supports this belief, many people still use the remedies to treat asthma, arthritis and even cancer. In turn, then, there is a high demand for pangolin blood and scales.

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Compounding matters, in some parts of the world Pangolin meat is considered a delicacy – although its consumption carries a prison sentence of up to ten years. And despite having been granted the best protection available by the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species, pangolins are still targets. Now, a battle to prevent their extinction is underway.

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The battle to prevent the pangolin’s extinction is in fact still ongoing. Happily, Shenzhen Customs declared that it would do its best to prevent the illegal smuggling of animal products. To save the pangolin, though, something more needs to change. Indeed, in December 2017 the International Fund for Animal Welfare told The Dodo, “More needs to be done so we don’t see pangolins go extinct within our lifetime.”

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Unfortunately, however, this case isn’t unique. In fact, a similar customs discovery – which was also made in China in 2017 – is just as unsettling. This time, when border patrol officers inspected an unassuming freight truck, they were met with a sight that chilled them to the bone.

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When Chinese border police stopped the transport vehicle, they had no reason to suspect anything unusual. In fact, only when the number of crates didn’t match the manifest did they become curious enough to look inside. But that’s exactly when their blood ran cold.

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As a result of this shocking discovery, Chinese law enforcement pounced on a smuggling operation that could have passed right under their noses. But thankfully, their safeguards proved effective at catching the criminals.

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Of course, border police between China and Vietnam must be diligent. After all, the area is a hotspot for illegal trafficking. Consequently, China has increased its patrol in an effort to crack down on the problem.

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And so far, its efforts have paid off. For example, when the south China Guangxi police force stopped a vehicle in Fangchenggang, a routine inspection turned out to be anything but. Their discovery, however, was both tragic and sickening.

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The first clue came when the officers checked the delivery manifest. Curiously, the truck had some crates not on the list. Therefore, the officers went ahead and checked out the cargo.

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But what they found must have sent chills down their spines. You see, the most trafficked cargo across the China-Vietnam border is animals. And in a manner of speaking, that is exactly what the officers found in the truck.

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Yes, law enforcement suspected wildlife smuggling, and they weren’t wrong. “The police [checked] the 16 boxes on the truck where they found frozen Siamese crocodiles,” Chinese news channel CGTN wrote on YouTube.

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Gruesomely, the officers found 70 frozen crocodile cadavers. In addition, the truck contained dismembered crocodile parts. Specifically, the vehicle held 88 crocodile tails alongside its aforementioned macabre packages.

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In total, the 158 crocodiles that died for the smuggler’s purpose would have been a tragic discovery in and of itself. Unfortunately, the species of the dead animals proved even more of a blow to conservationists. Yes, all the bodies and tails belonged to a rare type of reptile called the Siamese crocodile.

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Siamese crocodiles are freshwater reptiles found primarily in Southeast Asia. They are classified as critically endangered on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. Not only that, but they have already become locally extinct in many of their natural habitats.

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Exactly what the smugglers intended to do with their ghoulish cargo is unknown. Most likely, though, the animals would be sold for their skins. In turn, the skins would be used to make high-end fashion items.

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At least with this cargo, however, the evidence suggested that someone had bred the crocodiles on a farm. Animal Welfare Institute biologist DJ Schubert concurs. “The video doesn’t provide clear footage of the crocodiles, but they all seem to be around the same size, and they don’t seem to be too beat up,” he told The Dodo on January 27, 2017.

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“[This suggests] that they came from a captive breeding facility. It can be a difficult life in the wild, so oftentimes their hides will get scarred with fights from other crocodiles,” Schubert added. In any event, the illegal trade of the animals will still likely have a backlash for their wild relatives.

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“The problem with any captive breeding program, whether it’s birds or anything else, is that it creates incentive for the product and the species,” Schubert continued. “That opens the door for individuals in criminal syndicates to traffic wild-caught specimens.” Thus, the crime may still have an impact on the species overall.

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Schubert also theorized as to why some of the crates contained whole animals while others just carried tails. He told The Dodo that the smugglers likely acted as instructed. “I’m assuming that the people responsible for this illegal shipment were filling an order,” he said.

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Either way, chances are that the crocodiles didn’t live a pleasant life. Illegal animal farms, after all, often have large volumes of animals in cramped conditions and kill their inhabitants in horrifying, inhumane ways. Indeed, Schubert suspected that the smugglers used a “freezing technique” to kill these Siamese crocodiles.

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Unfortunately, this shipment wasn’t an isolated incident; illegal animal trade between Vietnam and China is a booming industry. Reports indicate that crocodile farms trade more than an estimated 6,000 reptiles a year. Add to that the demand for rhino horns, pangolin parts and elephant ivory.

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Much of the demand stems from the use of rare animal parts in traditional Asian medicine. For this reason, pangolin scales and rhino horns, for example, trade at exuberant prices on the black market. On the other hand, people buy elephant ivory often just for decorative reasons.

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Thankfully, the Chinese government said it will close all of its ivory factories by the end of 2017. “I’d say that the Chinese government is stepping up,” Gary Stokes, the Southeast Asia director of Sea Shepherd Conservation Society, told the Dodo. “It’s very commendable; however this is just the tip of a very large iceberg.”

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Nguyen Van Hoan, from Vietnam’s Department of Quang Ninh Customs, agrees. “Protection of critically endangered animals needs cooperation between countries and departments,” he told the Global Times. “It is good news that China and Vietnam have promised to improve coordination [when it comes to crackdowns] on wildlife crimes.”

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However, it’s not always customs officials who come across these kinds of discoveries. After a crate was abandoned at a humane society in Florida, for instance, the director had no idea what she’d find inside. When she suddenly spotted movement, though, she knew that she had to act fast.

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Image: Southeast Volusia Humane Society via The Dodo

When someone carried a crate to the humane society building, the director thought little of it. Perhaps it contained a donation of food or bedding for the animals? But then she saw movement in the crate and her stomach dropped. Yes, a well-meaning gesture was about to turn potentially deadly.

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And that situation was exactly what had happened one day in July 2017, when the Florida sun was beating down on towns and cities below. Furthermore, it was a particularly scorching period, with temperatures rising above 100 ?F in places throughout the state.

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One such place was New Smyrna Beach, where the Southeast Volusia Humane Society (SVHS) was going about its day-to-day business. However, perhaps no one could have predicted the upheaval that was about to happen. And it all began with good intentions.

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Deliveries to the SVHS were nothing unusual, moreover, so when one car pulled up at its entrance it didn’t raise any eyebrows. What was removed from the vehicle certainly did, though. The driver and a passenger had exited the car and were carrying a container between them.

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Specifically, the object they were holding was a storage tote – a plastic box commonly used for shipping food or goods. And it was actually the executive director of SVHS, Karen Morgan, who noticed something unusual about the scene. To wit, as the tote was brought to the door, something moved inside it.

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Morgan recounted the events of that day to The Dodo, saying, “I looked up and saw this kitten peek his head up from between the two flaps of the tote.” She added, “And for some reason, they [the people] were trying to push the kitten back in.”

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But that wasn’t all – there were other cats inside the tote, too. The pair went on to tell the Humane Society staff that they had rescued the stray kittens. But although they arguably meant well by bringing the young animals to the SVHS, the lack of ventilation in the container could have proved fatal for the felines.

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Furthermore, as Morgan explained to The Dodo, it wasn’t just the tote that was unsuitable for the kittens. “They were on black leather or black vinyl in that car, so that’s pulling heat down on top of them,” she revealed. “Those kittens were in direct sunlight.”

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“There was nothing protecting them at all,” Morgan continued. She went on, “A staff member and myself ran outside quickly; I grabbed the tote from them and came in and opened it.” And it turned out that the tote didn’t contain just one or two tiny kittens, but nine of them. What’s more, they were in trouble.

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So, in trying to save the kittens, the good Samaritans had actually almost killed them. The tiny felines’ situation certainly wasn’t helped by the fact that the tote had no air holes punched in it, either, and Morgan revealed to The Dodo that the cats had probably spent an hour in there. “It is really meant for shipping – it’s not meant for anything that’s alive,” she explained to the website.

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When Morgan picked up one of the little kittens, moreover, the heat of it shocked her. In fact, Morgan would go on to compare the felines’ body temperatures to that of the warmth of a “Coke can [left] in the front seat of your car in the hot sun.”

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“One of them, his little tongue was hanging out,” Morgan added. “He was panting in my hands, and I thought he was going to lose consciousness.” At that point, the staff realized just how serious the situation had become: nine tiny lives hung in the balance.

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Time was therefore of the essence, and so the Humane Society’s staff dashed over to help the kittens. “We all went into emergency mode,” Morgan recalled to The Dodo. “We brought in wet towels, water and milk. Anything they might be interested in to get some fluids back into them.”

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But to avoid further problems stemming from rapid changes in temperature, SVHS staff had to be very careful. Indeed, if the kittens’ body heat dropped too rapidly, they could be sent into shock. As a result, the little furballs had to be watched over very carefully.

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Fortunately, though, after the kittens were draped in damp towels, their body temperatures began to slowly decrease. It seemed, then, that SVHS had reacted in the nick of time to save them from a very nasty fate. There was one further complication, however; the shelter had no room to take the little cats in.

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As a result, they were placed in the capable care of a foster home provided by Jan Wenger. And she was more than happy to take on the nine tiny tuxedo kittens. “I knew I didn’t want to split them, up so I took all of them together,” she told Fox 35 in July 2017.

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“I brought them into my home last night when they were scared and dirty,” Wenger added to The Dodo. “Our first plan of action was to give them a nice bath. I got them cleaned up, fed them and got them ready for bed.”

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After that, the kittens blossomed, and their affectionate personalities began to come out. In addition, they were given individual monikers to mark the start of their new lives. Specifically, Morgan named them after the Little Rock Nine, the black Arkansas students who famously smashed racial barriers by enrolling at an all-white high school: Ernest, Elizabeth, Jefferson, Terrence, Carlotta, MinniJean, Gloria Ray, Thelma and Melba.

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“We’re really grateful to everyone who’s rallied behind them,” Morgan would later say about the kittens. “Because they were really just a few minutes away from expiring, unfortunately, in a very, very excruciating and painful way. It really does take a village,” she concluded. And fortunately, thanks to SVHS, the kittens’ future looks bright.

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Since their story reached social media, meanwhile, the kittens have become known as the Tuxedo Nine and are “thriving,” as Morgan told Inside Edition in July 2017. All that remains, then, is to find them new homes – a process that Morgan has said has already begun.

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