Where trafficked pangolins originate is a puzzle, hobbling efforts to save them

By Mongabay.com

  • Trafficking of pangolin parts, especially scales, from Africa to Asia has increased in recent years, while efforts to determine where seized scales originated from have not been able to keep pace.
  • These scaly anteaters are one of the most trafficked mammals globally, and trade in all eight pangolin species, four of which are found in Africa, is banned.
  • Scientists at the University of Washington who developed a technique using genetic data to pinpoint where ivory originated from and now are trying to replicate it for pangolins.
  • Dismantling trafficking networks may not, by itself, protect dwindling pangolin populations, experts say, as there is a pressing need to understand what is driving the illegal trade.

The seizure earlier this month in Nigeria of nearly a ton of pangolin scales and elephant ivory bound for Asia has once again highlighted the plight of pangolins as among the most trafficked animals on the planet.

Nigerian customs officers made the bust near the country’s main port in Lagos, intercepting 840 kilograms (1,850 pounds) of scales and 145 kg (320 lbs) of ivory. Under CITES, the global wildlife trade convention, trade in all eight pangolin species is banned, barring exceptional cases. In recent years, the traffic in pangolin parts, especially scales, from Africa to Asia has increased, but determining where seized scales were harvested has proven difficult, if not impossible.

“The way in which the trafficking happens is still a big question mark for us,” said Sarah Stoner, director of intelligence at the Wildlife Justice Commission (WJC), a Netherlands-based nonprofit. WJC collaborated with Nigerian authorities during the raid in Lagos.

“We don’t know how pangolins are being killed, how scales are being harvested. That is something that continues to be a huge impediment in tackling the trade.”

Pangolin scales seized during a raid in Nigeria in August 2021. Image courtesy of the Nigeria Customs Service.

Scientists at the University of Washington in the U.S. have developed a technique using genetic data to pinpoint where ivory originated. “We are in the process of developing similar technology for pangolins, especially since 25% of large seizures of pangolin scales are commingled with ivory,” Samuel Wasser, a conservation biologist at the university, told Mongabay in an email.

Wasser’s team is piecing together a DNA reference map for pangolins. “We have also started accumulat[ing] samples from recent pangolin seizures,” he said. “However, they won’t be fully analyzed until we have sufficient pangolin samples to compare them to in our reference map.”

Four pangolin species are found in Africa: black-bellied (Phataginus tetradactyla), white-bellied (Phataginus tricuspis), giant (Smutsia gigantea) and Temminck’s pangolin (Smutsia temminckii).

Nigeria, the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) and Cameroon are the countries most often linked to seized pangolin contraband. Nigeria in particular has emerged as a major hub in the international trade. Increasing global cooperation in tackling trafficking has led to more seizures; in the past 13 months, at least four major raids occurred in Nigeria alone.

Last November, a joint operation between the DRC and the U.S. led to the seizure of ivory and pangolin scales valued at $3.5 million. U.S. law enforcement picked up two suspects outside Seattle, Washington, but most of their contraband was recovered from the DRC capital, Kinshasa.

It’s rare for wildlife seizures to occur in the DRC. A WJC analysis of 52 pangolin seizures between 2016 and 2019 showed that of the nine linked to the DRC, none were detected within the country’s borders. Most illegal wildlife products leave the continent undetected and may be intercepted in transit or at their destinations. Once contraband is shipped overseas, it often becomes harder to trace back.

What’s more, by the time raids occur, the animals are already dead. Between 2010 and 2021, more than 190 metric tons of pangolin products, mostly scales, were recovered in seizures linked to Nigeria, which translates to at least 800,000 dead pangolins.

“When we start working, most of the time, it’s too late in terms of conservation,” Henri Fournel, coordinator of environmental security at Interpol, told National Geographic in 2019 after the conclusion of a major transnational operation against wildlife trafficking. “We just want to make it clear to the criminals that … we are just watching them.”

Bags containing pangolin scales seized during a raid in Nigeria in August 2021. Image courtesy of the Nigeria Customs Service.

But dismantling trafficking networks may not by itself protect dwindling pangolin populations. “We need to understand what the root cause of the trafficking is,” Charles Emogor, an ecologist at the University of Cambridge, told Mongabay. “Are people killing the pangolins for the bushmeat or primarily to feed the demand for scales?”

Without this knowledge, Emogor and other experts say, it’s difficult to design effective interventions to protect remaining pangolin populations.

China and Vietnam are the biggest markets for pangolin scales, which are used in traditional medicines. In the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic and amid growing concerns about zoonotic diseases, China enacted measures to disincentivize the use of pangolin scales in traditional medicine. In 2020, the government removed pangolin scales from a list of approved ingredients in traditional medicine.

However, anti-trafficking investigators like Adams Cassinga, founder of Conserv Congo, a nonprofit in the DRC, says it’s a “misconception” that the demand for scales is driving the poaching of pangolins. “Pangolin scales are what we call collateral damage,” he said. “The number one motivation of the decimation of wildlife in Africa is bushmeat, because people are hungry.”

Some recent findings suggest this is true. “In my study site, Cross River National Park in Nigeria, people do not go out hunting pangolins. They actually get pangolins as part of the general wildmeat hunting,” Emogor said.

The scales, which aren’t eaten, are a byproduct that could become a source of extra income. But Emogor cautioned against drawing blanket conclusions. Drivers of poaching differ from one region to the other within Nigeria and across countries.

Emogor and Cassinga both echoed the need to focus on communities that are involved in poaching. We need to empower local organizations. We need to educate the people. The locals have got to own the conservation,” Cassinga said. “Then the law can be enforced in the proper way because you have given people options.”


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