SEPANG - At least 1,400 adult pangolins must have been killed by poachers to yield the 712kg of scales seized by the Customs Department.
The scales, shipped from two locations in Africa, in 18 gunny sacks, were labelled "general products" and "dry herbs" in an attempt to escape detection by the authorities.
The pangolin is said to be the most trafficked mammal in the world, with its meat and scales fetching high prices on the black market.
Customs Department assistant director-general (enforcement) Datuk Paddy Abd Halim said the seized scales were worth at least RM9.18mil (S$2.9 million) and constituted the largest seizure of pangolin scales so far.
"We were alerted on the evening of May 1, to a suspected illegal shipment which came in from Accra, Ghana.
"The next day, we inspected eight gunnysacks at the KLIA air cargo warehouse, listed in the airway bill as general products, and found 408kg of pangolin scales worth RM5.26mil," he told reporters at the KLIA Customs Complex on Monday.
He said they received information the same day that a similar shipment had arrived at the warehouse here.
"We checked 10 gunny sacks the next day, which were labelled dry herbs, and found 304kg of the scales worth RM3.92mil. The shipment came from Kinshasa, in the Congo," he said, adding that investigations showed both shipments had fake company information listed.
He said the case was being investigated under Section 135(1) of the Customs Act for importing prohibited items.
Paddy said the department was trying to find out the identity of the recipient.
Department of Wildlife and National Parks (Perhilitan) enforcement deputy director Rozidan Md Yasin said each full-grown pangolin has about 500g of scales.
"We estimate that it would have meant the slaughter of at least 1,400 of the animals to get 712kg. We are investigating the species of pangolin that was slaughtered," he said.
Pangolin scales are popular as traditional medicine to aid in healing fever and malaria, and even to give strength, he added.
Rozidan said that in Malaysia, a full-grown pangolin could fetch at least RM1,000 for its meat.
"The scales of a full-grown pangolin can also be sold on the black market for upwards of RM1,000," he said.
KLIA Customs Department director Datuk Hamzah Sundang said pangolin scales were prohibited from import under Schedule Three of the International Trade Act on Threatened Species 2008.
"Anyone convicted of importing the scales could face a fine not less than 10 times and not more than 20 times the value of the seizure, or three years' jail, or both," he said.
According to the World Wildlife Fund, eight species of pangolin are found on two continents, and their status ranges from vulnerable to critically endangered.
All eight species are protected under international laws and two are listed as critically endangered on the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List of Threatened Species.
Pangolin meat is considered a delicacy in China and Vietnam and is also consumed as bush meat in many parts of Africa.