The crew of a Chinese vessel that crashed into protected coral reef in the Philippines are being held after 10,000kgs of meat from endangered species were found on board their boat.

Authorities have detained the 12 men on charges of poaching and attempted bribery.

The meat found belonged to the pangolin, or scaly anteater, which was added to the Zoological Society of London's list of genetically distinct and endangered mammals in 2010.

In China, pangolins are in great demand because their meat is considered a delicacy and some believe their scales - which are made from the same substance as human fingernails - have medical benefits.

Chinese boat
The boat ran into the coral reef on 8 April (Reuters)

Meat and scales from pangolin fetch hundreds of pounds per kilogram in China. The large-scale trade coupled with the loss of habitat is putting pressure on the remaining pangolin population.

The Chinese vessel crashed into the coral reef in the Tubbataha National Marine Park, a UNESCO-designated World Heritage Site, on 8 April.

Coast guard lieutenant commander Armand Balilo said 400 boxes of frozen pangolin meat were found during the second inspection of the boat.

Environmentalists said the Philippine government must do more to protect both endangered species and the coral. In January, a US navy ship got stuck in the reef and damaged the reef.

A baby pangolin that was rescued following a raid by Thai police in 2002 (Reuters)

The poaching charge the Chinese crew are facing carries up to 12 years in prison and fines of £195,000.

Adelina Villena, a lawyer for the Tubbataha park, said they will also face complaints about damaging the corals, trying to bribe park rangers and carrying explosives for fishing.

The crew said they had accidently entered Philippine waters from Malaysia

President Benigno Aquino III said the Government will pursue the charges: "When you enter that zone, there is immediate presumption that you intend to poach, and there are corresponding penalties - there is imprisonment, there is fine - and our job as the executive department is to execute this law."