Authorities in southern China seized a van they suspected was hauling drugs but found it packed with what may be a different kind of contraband: bear paws, a python skin and a pangolin carcass, an official said Tuesday.
The van was stopped by police Sunday in the Guangxi region near the border with Vietnam, according to Tang Chaoan, head of the propaganda bureau in the city of Fangchenggang, where the case was being investigated.
The load included 173 bear paws, one python skin and the carcass of a pangolin — a type of sticky-tongued, toothless, nocturnal anteater that is a menu item in southern China.
Bear paws are also considered a delicacy in southern China where exotic animals are favored by diners despite the impact on populations of endangered species.
It was not clear if the animal parts were being smuggled.
The area abuts Southeast Asia's notorious "Golden Triangle" drug producing region and officers suspected the van was transporting narcotics, Tang said. The van's driver and an assistant denied any knowledge of the bear paws and other items, he said.
The bear paws — also used in some traditional medicines — weighed 844 pounds, he said.
The python skin — used in the two-stringed violin-like instrument called the Chinese Erhu — was over 16.4 feet long. It is illegal to trade unlicensed pythons under Chinese law.
Jill Robinson, founder of Hong Kong-based animal welfare charity Animals Asia, said the paws likely came from bear farms, and the seizure highlights the need to take a closer look at the bear farm industry.
She said bear farms are not regulated enough, and parts are often smuggled across borders — an illegal practice under Chinese and international law.
The van had started its journey in the neighboring province of Yunnan, but it was unclear where the parts were headed, Tang said. He said investigations were continuing.