BEIJING (AFP) - Chinese authorities are investigating a banquet where government officials may have feasted on endangered pangolins, considered the most trafficked mammal on earth, after posts about the meal drew outrage on social media.
The animal's brown scales are made of nothing more than keratin - the same substance as fingernails - but are highly prized in Vietnam and China where they are misleadingly touted as bearing medicinal properties.
Police are investigating whether the "scaly anteater" was indeed consumed at a banquet in the southern province of Guangxi, the Xinhua state news agency reported late on Tuesday (Feb 7).
A viral post on the Chinese social media site Weibo claimed that Guangxi officials invited investors to eat the animal, which is listed as threatened to extinction by the International Union for Conservation of Nature.
Several photos showed an abundant feast, along with the user's observation: "It was my first time eating (pangolin)...I've already fallen deeply for the wild taste!"
In China, the pangolin is under state protection. Eating it is punishable by up to 10 years in prison.
A World Wildlife Fund survey published in September found a reduced market for pangolin meat in the country. But the scales continue to be illegally sold.
"These days the quality that stands out most in our officials is wickedness," one Weibo user said about the banquet incident.
"This is how they will become extinct," another said. "Shame!"
The Guangxi Investment Promotion Agency was initially suspected of hosting the banquet, but a regional disciplinary commission cleared the organisation of any wrongdoing.
The commission told Xinhua that only one official attended the private event.
The pangolin is the most hunted animal in the world and an estimated one million have been plucked from Asian and African forests over the past decade.