Manila: The Philippine Coast Guard found 400 boxes of frozen anteaters in the cargo section of a Chinese vessel that ran aground last week on Tubbataha Reef, a protected marine sanctuary in southwestern Philippines, a senior official said.

“We will find out if the frozen scaly anteaters or pangolins, also known as balintong, were taken from Tubbataha Reef or from a nearby area in the Philippine territory,” said Lieutenant Commander Armand Badillo, spokesman of the Philippine Coast Guard (PCG).

He referred to marine-rich Palawan, which is near Tubbataha Reef.

Each of the boxes had 25 to 30 frozen anteaters, said Badillo, but did not give details such as the state of the frozen endangered species.

Used as a traditional medicine and a delicacy, the meat of anteaters is sold in the international market for $114 per kilo. Anteater’s skin and scales are also sold at a high price in the black market.

Because of this new evidence, there is a possibility that the 12 Chinese fishermen who were arrested last April 8 could be liable for taking endangered species from Philippine territory, said Badillo, adding this crime carries years of imprisonment.

Philippine anteaters are considered endangered, making them protected by international environment–sensitive laws worldwide, Badillo explained.

The Chinese fishermen were already charged for damaging part of the Tubbataha Reef, illegal poaching, and attempting to corrupt or bribe Filipino marine rangers at the Tubbataha Reef, after their arrest.

They were detained at the provincial jail of Palawan.

Meanwhile, a salvage ship is on its way to Tubbataha Reef to help tow away the 48-metre long Chinese vessel that remained stuck at the protected marine park.

Last March 30, dismantled parts of a US Navy ship, the USS Guardian, were taken out of the Tubbataha Reef, where it ran aground in January, damaging more than 2,000 square metre of coral reefs.

The recent incident involving Chinese fishermen has intensified tension between the Philippines and China, following a standoff between their vessels near the Scarborough Shoar in northern Luzon, which began in May 2012.

Since last year, the Philippines and Vietnam have accused China of flexing its might in the South China Sea.

China, Taiwan, and Vietnam claim the whole of the South China Sea, based on their historical rights. Brunei, Malaysia, and Philippines claim some parts of the Spratly Archipelago off the South China Sea, based on the provision of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea which grants a 200 nautical miles exclusive economic zone starting from their shores.