MANILA, Philippines (AP) — A Philippine court on Tuesday convicted 12 Chinese men of poaching after their boat carrying frozen meat of protected pangolins ran aground in a marine park.
The Regional Trial Court in Puerto Princesa city in Palawan province sentenced the boat captain to 12 years in prison and each crewmember to six to 10 years, said provincial Prosecutor Allen Ross Rodriguez. Each one also was fined $100,000.
The poaching charge alleged the foreign vessel lacked a permit to be in the Tubbataha Reef Natural Park when it ran aground there in April 2013.
"They were a fishing vessel inside a marine park, which is prima facie evidence of poaching," Park Superintendent Angelique Songco told The Associated Press.
The marine park is a UNESCO-designated World Heritage Site and part of the island province of Palawan southwest of Manila.
"The verdict was based on applicable Philippine laws," the Department of Foreign Affairs said. "The place where these Chinese fishermen were apprehended in April 2013 is part of the Philippines' internal waters where it has exclusive sovereignty."
When coast guard inspectors boarded the vessel, they found 400 boxes containing thousands of frozen skinned pangolins, or scaly anteaters. The crew said the cargo was collected in Indonesia.
Rodriguez said "mere possession" of endangered animals is an offense under Philippine law. He said the Chinese have been arraigned on the possession charges and on attempted bribery charges but the trial has been stalled because the accused did not have an interpreter.
The coast guard reported the boat carried about 10,000 kilograms (22,000 pounds) of pangolin meat. Philippine authorities were unable to determine which of the four Asian pangolin species was involved because the carcasses were decomposing, Songco said.
The International Union of Conservation of Nature lists two as endangered: the Sunda, or Malayan, pangolin, and the Chinese pangolin. Two others, including the Philippine pangolin endemic to Palawan, are classified as near threatened.
The pangolins are protected in many Asian nations, and international trade is banned. However, illicit trade continues because the meat and scales of the pangolin fetch hundreds of dollars per kilogram in China, where many believe they cure various ailments.
Rodriguez said the Chinese will remain free on bail while they appeal the conviction.
While the ship grounding occurred well within Philippine waters, the country has been beefing up sea patrols because of disputes with China.
In May, Philippine maritime police seized a Chinese boat laden with giant turtles, most of them dead, at the disputed Half Moon Shoal in the South China Sea. Three fishermen were released because they were minors, but nine were charged with poaching despite Beijing's demand for them to be released.