26/09/2011 12:48 BST | Updated 26/11/2011 05:12 GMT

Scores Of Endangered Pangolins Seized In Thailand (Photos)

Scores of endangered pangolins worth around £21,000 have been seized by authorities in Thailand who believe the rare species were en-route to be sold and eaten outside the country.

The anteaters, commonly referred to as "living pinecones" were seized from a lorry in the southern province of Prachuap Khiri Khan after a driver fled from a checkpoint there, according to Customs Department director-general Prasong Poontaneat. Pangolins are protected under a convention on international trade in endangered species (CITIES) of which Thailand is a member.

The mammals were thought to have come from Malaysia or Indonesia and on their way to either Vietnam or China, where their meat is valuable due to its perceived healing powers. The driver was later found and detained.

Hunted to near extinction in Cambodia, Vietnam and China, the toothless scaly creatures are now threatened because smugglers are poaching them from other parts of Southeast Asia, according to National Geographic.

Reducing swelling and improving blood circulation are attributed to the pangolin, as their scales are made of keratin, the protein found in hair and nails. Yorubic medicine, an ancient healing system found on the African continent believes the animals can confer invisibility, remove bad luck an appease or warn off witches or evil forces. Young or even pregnant female animals are required for some of these rituals. Their meat is a delicacy.

A Guangdong chef interviewed last year in the Beijing Science and Technology Daily and reported by the Guardian described how to cook a pangolin:

"We keep them alive in cages until the customer makes an order. Then we hammer them unconscious, cut their throats and drain the blood. It is a slow death. We then boil them to remove the scales.

"We cut the meat into small pieces and use it to make a number of dishes, including braised meat and soup. Usually the customers take the blood home with them afterwards.'"

Pangolins may not be the most attractive animal on the endangered species list, however they nevertheless play an important part in sustaining their natural habitat, which include forests, cleared and cultivated areas, and savannah grassland; generally they can be found where there are large numbers of ants and termites, their preferred foodstuff.

Simon Stuart, chair of the IUCN Species Survival Commission told National Geographic: “Pangolins save us millions of dollars a year in pest destruction. These shy creatures provide a vital service and we cannot afford to overlook their ecological role as natural controllers of termites and ants.”