The elusive pangolin, of which very little is known, is the most trafficked non-human mammal in the world.
It is estimated that between 2000 and 2013, more than one million pangolins were slaughtered and trafficked for their scales, meat and body parts.
One tonne of scales equates to roughly 1900 poached pangolin.
Despite this, experts do not know how many of these scaly creatures are left in the wild. They do know that we only have about 20 years left to save pangolin from extinction.
This is because they are a cryptic species, and are extremely difficult to find in the wild. They can therefore not be counted from the air like bigger animals.
The little-known pangolin is the world’s most trafficked and poached mammal because of the demand for its meat and scales. Picture: AFP/File/Roslan Rahman
What is known is that pangolin populations are dwindling fast, with all species ranked from vulnerable to critically endangered.
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There are also eight species of pangolin, four from Asia and four from Africa.
The Asian species are the Indian pangolin (endangered), the Chinese pangolin (critically endangered), the Sunda pangolin (critically endangered) and Philippine pangolins (critically endangered).
In Africa, the white-bellied pangolin and the giant ground pangolin are listed as endangered, and the temnick ground and black-bellid or long-tailed pangolin classified as vulnerable.
All species of pangolin are protected under international laws.
While we grapple with how to save however many pangolins there are left in the wild, poaching rates have increased to the point where it is now a transnational organised crime issue, said Wildlife Justice Commission executive director Olivia Swaak-Goldman.
Lockdown due to Covid-19 may have slowed the trade down slightly, but in January, 8.8 tons of pangolin scales, ivory tusk and rhino horn were discovered in a seizure in Nigeria.
Seized endangered pangolin scales on display in Hong Kong in 2019. Picture: AFP/Isaac Lawrence
Swaak-Goldman expressed concern that pangolin scales are increasingly being used to substitute, or being traded alongside, ivory.
“The trafficking shows no signs of abating and has evolved into a transnational organised crime issue, the incidence of which is increasing year-on-year.”
Founder and chairman of the African Pangolin Working Group (APWG), Professor Ray Jansen, said during a webinar hosted by VukaNow and US Aid that 38 pangolins were saved from the trade in 2020. In 2019, 37 pangolins were rescued.
He revealed that much of the intelligence received to help save pangolins comes from members of the public, which assists in intelligence operations involving authorities such as the Hawks and the Independent Police Investigative Directorate (Ipid).
Jansen said that due to high rates of migrant labour in neighbouring countries with weak economies, many of the suspects involved in the pangolin trade are from countries such as Zimbabwe, Mozambique, Botswana and Namibia.
Although many aspects of wildlife crime are driven by poverty, Jansen said there was also an element of greed and opportunism.
A photo sent to Professor Ray Jansen by a poacher trying to sell a pangolin in 2019. Picture: Supplied
The middlemen in the trade are usually South Africans, where 20% of the trade is said to be organised crime.
Even farm hands on the plains of the Savannah, who spend up to 14 hours a day herding cattle and goats, are being roped in to help catch pangolins, who are notoriously territorial and live in unused burrows and termite mounts.
The shepherds know where the pangolins are, and are paid menial amounts to disclose this information. Even family dogs are being trained to sniff pangolin out of burrows.
“If the demand is high enough, pangolins will be sourced,” Jansen said.
Although movement was restricted, crime syndicates continued, likely exacerbated due to economic hardships during Covid-19.
He does not see trade in pangolins reducing in the near future, despite “relatively high successes.”
TRAFFIC Africa programme director Nick Ahlers said 159 unique trade routes were associated with pangolin syndicates, with an average of 27 new routes recorded every year.
There are 67 countries implicated in the trade, with at least 33 of these countries actively involved in some way every year.
Trade routes identified by TRAFFIC from 2010 to 2015. Picture: TRAFFIC report December 2017
China is the dominant destination for pangolin scales, meat and parts. Vietnam and Thailand are also prominent.
The US and the Netherlands have emerged when it comes to trading pangolin parts, but Ahlers said these confiscations found small quantities, usually in powder form.
Nigeria has recently emerged as the most involved African country, as well as Cameron, Liberia, Uganda, Sierra Leone, Keyna and Ivory Coast.
In recent years, Ethiopia, South Africa and the Democratic Republic of the Congo have also emerged as being actively involved in the trade.
Countries or territories implicated in the pangolin trade between 2010 to 2015, based on 1270 incidents. Picture: TRAFFIC report December 2017
When it comes to transporting scales, Ahlers said that air travel was preferred. It was also the transport of choice when trading between Africa and Asia in general.
Trade in whole pangolins is usually done through overland transport, and body parts are a mix of air and road travel.
Of all the seizures that took place in 2019, 67% was scales, and 24% was live pangolins.
Shanghai customs officers checking pangolin scales at a port in Shanghai after seizing over three tonnes.
Jansen appealed to authorities not to name the price or weight of pangolins during seizures, saying too much information was being made readily available, to the detriment of rescue efforts.
Devhandran Pillay, a criminal investigative specialist at the US Department of Homeland Security said that long-term projects have to involve identifying potential buyers, both locally and abroad. Currently, only poachers and local receivers are being identified.
Although this will take some time, Pillay is optimistic that this is necessary “to see the bigger picture”.
A pangolin seized by police in 2018. Picture: SAPS
With pangolin numbers dwindling at unprecedented speeds in just the last decade, and with no certainty of how many are left to protect, the very ambiguous nature of this animal means the urgency in addressing the trafficking of pangolins is must be emphasised.
“We need to treat it as a transnational crime issue and apply the same law enforcement approach and investigate techniques used in other major crimes. We cannot afford losing another species,” warned Swaak-Goldman.
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