The Philippine coast guard said Monday it had found hundreds of frozen pangolins, or scaly anteaters, in the cargo hold of a Chinese boat which ran aground in a protected marine sanctuary last week.
Wildlife officials have been informed of the discovery, which could lead to more charges for 12 Chinese men arrested for allegedly poaching after their boat was stranded in Tubbataha Reef last week.
"We found 400 boxes containing anteaters aboard the vessel, and we are now determining where these came from," coast guard spokesman Lieutenant Commander Armand Balilo told AFP.
The creatures were individually wrapped in plastic and hidden inside sacks.
A protected species, pangolins are widely hunted in parts of Asia for their meat, skin and scales. In China, they are known as a delicacy and are purported to have medicinal qualities.
All eight species of the insect-eating mammals are protected by international law. Two -- the Malaysian and Chinese pangolins -- are in the International Union of Conservation of Nature's "red list" of endangered species.
The animals are also found in the western Philippine island of Palawan, the nearest land area to Tubbataha Reef where the Chinese boat had been marooned.
Balilo said the poacher's vessel remained stuck in Tubbataha, while the coast guard awaited arrival of a salvage ship to tow it it away.
Angelique Songco, head of the office managing the Tubbataha marine park, said the Chinese ship had already caused "a lot of damage" to the corals.
The Philippine office of the World Wide Fund for Nature condemned the poaching of the pangolins, saying that growing demand in China was wiping the animal out in Southeast Asia.
"It is simply deplorable that they appear to be posing as fishermen to trade in illegal wildlife," WWF-Philippines chief executive officer Jose Maria Lorenzo Tan said in a statement.
He said that if the carcasses are found to be Philippine pangolins, then the full force of the country's wildlife protection law should be applied.
The law imposes penalties of as much as 12 years in prison depending on how endangered the affected species is.
Prosecutors charged the 12 Chinese fishermen last week with illegal poaching and with corruption for attempting to bribe Filipinos officials.
The grounding of their 48-metre (157-foot) boat came amid deep tensions between the Philippines and China over competing territorial claims to the neighbouring South China Sea.
China claims virtually all of the South China Sea on historical grounds, including waters close to the shores of its neighbours.
The Philippines, as well as Vietnam, have accused China of bullying other countries as it aggressively stakes out its claims.