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Pangolin: The trail of the lucrative trade from Lagos to Kuala Lumpur

By Nicolas Michel
Posted on Thursday, 23 April 2020 16:47

Thailand Pangolin Seizure
A Thai customs official display some of the 136 pangolins and 450 kgs. (992 lbs.) of pangolin scales it seized, estimated to be worth over USD$75,278 during a press conference at the Customs Department headquarters in Bangkok, Thailand, Thursday, Aug. 31, 2017. (AP Photo/Sakchai Lalit)

Suspected to be the cause of the coronavirus pandemic, the pangolin is the most poached mammal on the planet. It is now at the heart of a vast, lucrative but illegal trade between Africa and Asia.

The pangolin, the most poached animal in the world, is one of the rare mammals that does not reproduce in captivity.

Located on the Strait of Malacca, not far from Kuala Lumpur, Port Kelang is Malaysia’s main port. And like the neighbouring city-state of Singapore, it is also a hub for pangolin traffic, a lucrative illegal trade linking Africa to Asia.

On 31 March, when the world was still wondering whether the small insectivore mammal had been the intermediate host for the coronavirus, Port Kelang customs officials seized a shipment of 6.2tn of scales valued at $17.9m. By May 2019, 5.3tn had been intercepted in Vietnam in two containers from Nigeria: the 151 bags of scales were mixed with about 60 bags of cashew nuts.

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On the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s (IUCN) pangolin site, the grim litany of numbers prove that Asia is indeed the final destination of the traffic.

  • February 2019: 30tn of frozen animals seized in Malaysia.
  • April and July 2019: 25.6tn and 11.9tn seized in Singapore.
  • December 2019: 20.9tn seized in China.

Captured in 14 African countries

Where do the animals come from? According to a study published in the scientific journal Conservation Letters in 2017, between 500,000 and 2.7 million pangolins are captured each year in 14 African countries, including Cameroon, Central African Republic, Guinea, Gabon, Democratic Republic of Congo, Republic of Congo and Nigeria.

In fact, it is from the latter country that the vast majority of pangolins and their scales destined for Asian consumption originate. According to a report by the Wildlife Justice Commission (WJC) available online, of the 206.4tn seized during 52 customs interventions between 2016 and 2019, 113 were seized in Nigeria and 75 in Vietnam. According to the WJC, pangolin trafficking, which accounts for 20% of illegal mammal trafficking, links these two countries through the Strait of Malacca.

If this trade, which has been strictly banned since 2016, has increased in recent years, it is simply because the four Asian species of pangolin have been literally decimated. One of them is now classified as “endangered”, while the other three are “critically endangered”, including the Chinese pangolin. This leaves the four African species to satisfy the demand of Chinese or Vietnamese consumers.

On the Gabonese and Nigerian markets, prices are said to have increased since the 1990s. They have increased by a factor of 5.8 for the two terrestrial species (Smutsia gigantea and Smutsia temminckii) and by a factor of 2.3 for the arboreal species (Phataginus tricuspis and Phataginus tetradactyla).

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According to IUCN, the pangolin is now the most poached mammal on the planet, both for its meat and for the virtues attributed to its scales in traditional pharmacopoeia – both in Africa and Asia.

Although discreet and rather nocturnal, this ant- and termite-loving animal has few non-human enemies: frightened, it rolls into a ball and relies on its scales to protect it from predators. For humans, it is then easy to pick it up and stuff it into a bag. Every five minutes on average, an animal is captured by poachers.

Moderate risk to poachers

The authorities in the countries concerned say they are doing their best to combat this trafficking. For example, on 3 March, in Abidjan, 3.5tn of scales were burned in order to discourage traffickers.

And as recently as 7 April, Zimbabwe’s The Herald reported that a certain Cleopas Dube, in possession of a pangolin that he intended to sell for some $1,000, had been sentenced to 620 hours of community service at Binga police station.

However, it is probably the weakness and rarity of the penalties imposed on offenders that allows this illegal trade to flourish.

In Nigeria, where mammals captured in neighbouring countries are probably centralised, poaching is punishable by a maximum sentence of one year in prison and a fine of N5m  ($12,800). With the price of a kilo of scales and if one can find a sympathetic customs officer or judge, the risk remains moderate.

In Zimbabwe, the Tikki Hywood Foundation cares for and releases pangolins recovered by game wardens and conducts public-awareness campaigns. It has collaborated with the photographer Adrian Steirn and the jeweller Patrick Mavros. The sales of their works and their media coverage have benefited the animal’s cause.

For a time, the current COVID-19 pandemic and the initial investigation of the pangolin in the transmission of the coronavirus – now disputed by the scientific community – gave the impression that poaching might decrease. It would appear that this is not the case: China has indeed banned the sale and consumption of wild animals, but this is not the first time it has done so, or with convincing results.

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