China has ordered an investigation after online images showed local officials holding a lavish banquet of meat of endangered pangolin, the most trafficked animal on earth.
The meat of the elusive creature - which is often likened to a tiny dinosaur - is seen as a delicacy by some in China, and feasts are considered an extravagant show of hospitality.
But Beijing banned the trade in pangolins more than 10 years ago, amid fears that the insect-eating animal was being hunted to extinction.
The alleged feast in the southern province of Guangxi became a hot topic on the Chinese internet this week after an online post went viral from a businessman who was present.
"This is the first time I have eaten it [pangolin], and it tasted great," said the comment, which was posted alongside images of cooked meat and bones.
"I have fallen deeply in love with the taste of wildlife," added the post, which was reputedly made by a businessman from Hong Kong who was describing a trade trip to Guangxi.
Pangolin smugglers in China can be served with prison sentences of 10 years. But there is huge demand for the nocturnal creature as its scales are highly-prized in Chinese traditional medicine as an ingredient which some believe can improve blood circulation.
Scales can sell for up to 17,000 yuan ($3387) on the black market, while a pangolin dish at Chinese restaurants would be expected to cost thousands of yuan.
Animal protection campaigners believe up to 90,000 dead and alive pangolins have been seized by customs officials over the last 10 years in China and Hong Kong.
Heather Sohl, chief adviser of wildlife, at WWF-UK, said: "Pangolins are the most trafficked mammal in the world and this is having a devastating impact on populations across Africa and Asia."
The pangolin banquet, which was reported to have taken place in July 2015, had "violated Chinese law", said Keith Guo, regional spokesman for Peta (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals).
"In China, some people still believe the meat of wildlife can improve health, and this has no scientific basis," he added.
Comments on Sina Weibo, China's version of Twitter, expressed outrage towards officials, who are often criticised for their extravagant lifestyles.
Beijing ordered provincial authorities to investigate the alleged feast, news site thepaper.cn said.
Local authorities did not respond to a request for comment.
"So officials entertain themselves by eating endangered wildlife," said one post.
"No wonder I am concerned about the future of the country."Telegraph Group Ltd