Illegal pangolin trade – Preventing a shift in demand from Asian to African species
Wildlife trade is a multi-billion-dollar business with hundreds of millions of specimens being traded annually. Hunted for their scales and meat, the pangolin has become the most trafficked mammal in the world. Surprisingly they are fairly unknown.
Eight species of pangolins exist – four in Asia and four in Africa. Habitat loss and, most of all, poaching has resulted in a rapid decline of pangolin populations and it is hard to estimate how many still remain in the wild. Seizure data can provide an idea of the volumes of pangolins illegally traded, but considering the illicit nature of the trade it most likely reflects only the tip of the iceberg.
All pangolin species are listed in Appendix II in CITES, the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora. A zero export quota for all wild-caught Asian species was established in 2000, effectively prohibiting all international trade. Yet, pangolins are highly sought after due to a great demand from Asian countries, especially China, where pangolin scales are used in traditional medicine and their meat is considered a delicacy and luxury dish in restaurants.
Two of the four Asian species are now listed as critically endangered by the IUCN Redlist of threatened species; the remaining two are listed as endangered. All four African species are considered vulnerable and their populations are in decline. It is believed that the available resources in Asia can’t satisfy the demand any longer and it is likely that this will result in the exploitation of African pangolins, which are already threatened by local cultural use. Prior to 2013 there were no recorded pangolin shipments exceeding 500 kg from Africa to Asia, since then they have escalated dramatically. In the first six months of 2015 alone, 8 tons of pangolin products were seized en route from African countries to Asia.
In a new contribution on pangolin trade, Shepherd et al. (2016) address this shift in demand to African pangolin species. In Taking a stand against illegal wildlife trade: The Zimbabwean approach to pangolin conservation the authors particularly focus their analysis on Temmincks ground pangolin and quantify the increase and distribution in illegal trade detected in Zimbabwe for the period of October 2010 – June 2015. They also evaluate the measures taken to suppress this illegal trade through seizures (confiscation and surrendering), prosecution penalties, and convictions by Zimbabwean authorities.
While pangolins were surrendered at an almost consistent rate, the authors found a significant increase in pangolin confiscations for the considered study period, but also the penalties and convictions have increased significantly through time. The study suggests that trade volumes in Zimbabwe are, luckily, not as alarming as in southeast Asian countries, where single shipments sometimes exceed 10 tons of pangolins. The biggest of the 65 recorded seizures for the study period involved just two pangolins. It should be emphasized, however, that this is only the case for Zimbabwe, and does not necessarily translate to other African countries.
At present there is no evidence that pangolins are being traded from Zimbabwe to China. While it can´t be assumed that the stronger penalties are supressing the illegal export of pangolins from Zimbabwe, it is encouraging to observe the small number of Temmincks ground pangolin in the trade, the consistent surrendering of pangolins by Zimbabweans and the widespread awareness of the severity of penalties. All this suggests that the Zimbabwean approach of toughened enforcement might be a key element in protecting this unique species.
Main image credit:
Ground pangolin (Smutsia temminckii) © Darren Pietersen / African Pangolin Working Group