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  Grim Cargo Of Rare Species Found Drifting Off ChinaMay 27, 2007 17:11 ENDANGERED, hunted, smuggled and now abandoned - 5000 of the world's rarest animals have been found in a deserted boat near the coast of China.

The pangolins, Asian giant turtles and lizards were crushed inside crates on a rickety wooden vessel that had lost engine power off Qingzhou island in the southern province of Guangdong. Most were alive, though 21 bear paws wrapped in newspaper were also found.

Conservation groups said the haul was discovered on one of the world's most lucrative and destructive smuggling routes: from the threatened jungles of South-East Asia to the restaurant tables of southern China.

They were found when local fishermen noticed a strange smell coming from the vessel, which did not have any registration plates, the Guangzhou Daily reported.

When coastguards boarded the 25-metre craft, it was reportedly deserted and stripped of identification papers. They found more than 200 crates full of animals, many so dehydrated that they were close to death. They were taken to port, doused with water and sent to an animal welfare centre.

The cargo included 31 pangolins, 44 leatherback turtles, 2720 monitor lizards and 1130 Brazilian turtles as well as the bear paws. Photographs showed other animals, including an Asian giant turtle. All of these South-East Asian species are critically endangered, banned from international trade and yet openly sold in restaurants and markets in Guangdong, which is famous for its exotic cuisine.

The discovery highlights the negative impact that the growing power of Chinese consumption is having on global conservation efforts.

China is the main market for illegally traded exotic species, which are eaten or used in traditional medicine, wildlife groups say. The meat of pangolins, or scaly anteaters, is considered a delicacy and their scales are thought to help mothers breastfeed their babies. Served in Guangdong or Yunnan they can cost up to 800 yuan ($128) a kilogram.

As a result of demand, the pangolin populations of China, Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia have been wiped out. With traders moving further and further south, the animal is declining even in its last habitats in Java, Sumatra and the Malaysian peninsula. It is a similar story for many species of turtle, tortoise, frog and snake.