The officer was arrested in the city of Medan in Indonesia’s main western island of Sumatra.
The eight pangolins were worth hundreds of dollars each. The creatures are sought after for their use in Chinese medicine.
Meanwhile, Hong Kong authorities seized nearly $10 million worth of pangolin scales on their way from Africa.
An Indonesian soldier was arrested for wildlife trafficking in Sumatra on Saturday in the latest indication of military involvement in organized crime.
The man and a civilian were intercepted in the city of Medan while driving a car. They had eight pangolins in the backseat.
The pangolin, which looks like a cross between an anteater and an armadillo, is the world’s most trafficked mammal. The Southeast Asian variety, the Sunda pangolin (Manis javanica), is critically endangered. The creature is poached for its scales and blood, which are used in traditional Chinese medicine, and for its meat, a delicacy in China and Vietnam.
Authorities staked out the soldier and his accomplice for two days and the former reportedly tried to escape custody by flashing his military card and pinning the blame on his friend.
“We’re still investigating. One pangolin can cost 5 million rupiah [$370], so eight are worth about 40 million [$3,000],” said Haluanto Ginting, the government’s Aceh-North Sumatra conservation area chief.
Indonesian soldiers have always been involved in organized crime. General Suharto, who ruled the country for more than three decades, facilitated a variety of lucrative smuggling operations as he rose through the ranks of the military in the 40s, 50s and 60s.
Police, too. In 2014, low-ranking officer Labora Sitorus was sent to prison for illegal logging and money laundering after authorities found that $114 million had passed through his bank accounts in a five-year span.
During Aceh province’s separatist war, freedom fighters used to sell pangolins to the Thai gun mafia in exchange for weapons because the Thais used to drink the blood for virility, according to Sidney Jones, director of the Jakarta-based Institute for Policy Analysis of Conflict.
“We hear of military involvement [in wildlife trafficking], and there are certainly many cases were the military has been proven to be involved in wildlife smuggling, but not always with pangolins,” Chris Shephard, Southeast Asia regional director for wildlife monitoring group TRAFFIC, told Mongabay.
With the depletion of Asian pangolins, traffickers are increasingly turning to Africa. Hong Kong authorities on Thursday seized 4,000 kilograms of suspected pangolin scales worth nearly $10 million. The shipment had come by sea from Cameroon and is the largest seizure in five years.