Saturday 12 December 2020

Investigating the ilicit trade in Pangolin scales.

Pangolins are reclusive nocturnal creatures and the only Mammal wholly covered in scales. They remain elusive, with researchers having limited knowledge of their ecology, yet they are now arguably the most heavily trafficked wild Mammal in the world. There has been a sustained increase in seizures of the species since 2014. Due largely to their exploitation in illegal trade, all species of Pangolin were transferred from CITES Appendix II to Appendix I at the CITES Conference of the Parties in 2016.
In a report published in the annual United Nations Office of Drugs and Crime World Wildlife Crime Report on Trafficking in protected species for 2020, independent wildlife trade consultant João Salgueiro, and Daniel Stiles of the World Wildlife Crime Report Scientific Advisory Group and the Species Survival Commission of the International Union for the Conservation of Nature, present a report on the ilicit trade in Pangolins and Pangolin body parts.
Number of whole Pangolin equivalents seized and number of seizures annually, 2007-2018. Salgueiro & Stiles (2020).
There are eight species of Pangolin: four found in Asia and four found in Africa. They have traditionally been consumed in both regions, but only recently have the two markets met. 

Today, demand for Pangolins in Asia is being supplied by Pangolins from Africa. In both regions, Pangolins are killed for their meat and their scales, which have been used medicinally. Pangolin products have been used in traditional Chinese medicine for thousands of years to treat a wide range of ailments. The scales are said to promote blood circulation and increase lactation in pregnant women, while the meat is used as a tonic. They are also used as medicine in Africa. In Nigeria, for example, Pangolin parts are used to treat a wide range of physical and psychological conditions.

All eight species of Pangolins are believed to be in decline, but since exact population counts are unavailable, it is difficult to determine the conservation impact of the illegal trade. The sheer volume of seizures, though, suggests unsustainable harvesting, a hypothesis corroborated by hunters interviewed by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime in Uganda and Cameroon in 2018, who reported that Pangolins are becoming harder to find. 
Since 2014, there has been a 10-fold increase in the number of whole Pangolin equivalents seized globally. The inclusion of all Pangolin species in Appendix I in 2016 likely had some role in this trend, especially as it increased awareness, but there are several reasons why the listing is unlikely to be solely responsible for the increase: The increase started in 2015, two years before the listing took effect; the size of individual seizures has increased, alongside the increase in overall seizure quantity; and before the Appendix I listing, the amount of Pangolins seized was much larger than the legal trade, implying that the industries where Pangolins are used have long drawn on illegal sources.

Sizable shipments of whole (often live) Pangolins have been seized in Asia, but most of the largest recent seizures have involved Pangolin scales sourced from Africa. Prior to 2009, the international trade involved mostly Pangolin meat and scales, sourced in Asia. The reasons for the shift to African sources is unclear, but may be due to declining Asian populations. There have been very few seizures of Pangolin meat from Africa. The reasons for this are also unclear, but almost all the World WISE database Pangolin seizures coming from Africa have been comprised of scales. Most of the large African scale shipments originated in West and Central Africa where three out of the four African Pangolin species are found. Four Pangolin species are also found in Southeast, South and East Asia. Most of the trade for all species is destined for East and Southeast Asian countries. Before 2016, the largest seizures intercepted amounted to less than 10 000 live Pangolin equivalents. In 2019, all the three major seizures made by Singapore were equivalent to more than twice that number.

Shares of whole pangolin live equivalents seized globally by product type, 2007-2018. Salguiero & Stiles (2020).

In 2000, CITES Parties adopted a zero-export quota for wild-caught Asian Pangolins traded for primarily commercial purposes. The legal trade in African Pangolin species was rare until about 2014. Between 2013 to 2017 (when all Pangolin species were up-listed to Appendix I), the amount of Pangolin scales legally imported went from almost zero to nearly 13 tons, with four countries being responsible for the bulk of the shipments: Burundi, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Republic of the Congo, and Uganda. China was the importer of 99 per cent of this volume.

Kilograms of Pangolin scales legally traded, 2013-2017 (importer reported quantities). Salguiero & Stiles (2020).

Demand for pangolin meat persists, but it appears to be satisfied regionally. For example, Malaysian authorities raided two high-volume Pangolin meat facilities in February 2019, confiscating 29.8 tons of Pangolins in the form of live and frozen Animals, including frozen meat. Intercontinental meat seizures, though, remain rare, and the short range of trafficking may be one reason why meat seizures are not detected at the same level as scale seizures in recent years. Based on World WISE data, meat seizures represented 15 per cent of Pangolin seizures in 2015, compared to only 1-2 per cent of Pangolin seizures from 2016 to 2018. There were 4355 live Pangolin equivalents’ worth of meat seized in 2018, out of 187 256 live Pangolin equivalents seized overall that year.

There is some debate as to how much of the large increase in scale trafficking could be coming from stockpiles that existed prior to Pangolins’ CITES Appendix I listing, and therefore, how much poaching is taking place. Nineteen countries have declared Pangolin scale stockpiles to CITES. China reports regularly releasing these stockpiled scales for domestic use by designated hospitals and manufacturers of patented Chinese medicines. The volume of declared stockpiles in source and destination countries is far smaller than the tens of thousands of whole Pangolin equivalents seized over the past decade. It is therefore unlikely that leakage from declared government stockpiles contributes significantly to the illegal trade; most sourcing is likely coming from the wild and most from African source countries, and not from stockpiles.

The magnitude of the illegal trade, based on seizure records, suggests that this wild sourcing is unsustainable. Breeding of Pangolins in captivity at commercial scale is currently not possible. Highly specialised diets combined with extreme sensitivity to capture-induced stress mean that Pangolins fare poorly in captivity. Pangolins generally give birth to one cub at a time with gestation periods that range from about 65 to 370 days. Only a few births have been reported in captivity, with high infant mortality rates. At present, sourcing from captive-bred populations does not seem to be possible to meet demand and/or replace the wild population of Pangolins harvested by poachers.

Given that the scales from one Pangolin weigh anywhere between 0.36 to 3.60 kg, multi-ton seizures of scales represent far larger numbers of Pangolins killed than meat shipments of a similar weight. Estimates of how many Pangolins have been illegally traded in recent years are difficult to calculate given that: Sseizures represent only a small fraction of the animals killed; size and weight of scales vary between species; and incomplete seizure records that make it difficult to know what species was seized.

According to Pangolin hunters and traders interviewed by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime in Cameroon and Uganda, Giant Pangolins, Manis gigantea, are relatively rare. If each Pangolin killed for illegal trade in Africa produced an average of 500 grams of scales, the 185 tons of scales seized between 2014 and 2018 would represent about 370 000 Pangolin equivalents.

An African Giant Pangolin, Manis gigantea. Biodatabases.

In 2000, zero export quotas were established for Asian Pangolin species whose populations were seriously depleted from the skin and meat trade. These zero quotas may have contributed to the decline in the skin trade, but despite population depletion, sourcing from Southeast Asia (primarily from Indonesia, Malaysia and Thailand) continued in large quantities until 2013, at which point it dropped off significantly. 

Based on seizure data, it appears that, starting in 2013, the source of seized Pangolins shifted to the African continent, primarily to West and Central Africa. Seizures were made first on shipments coming from Cameroon, then Nigeria, and then (in 2016) to the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Other source countries mentioned by Pangolin traders during fieldwork include the Central African Republic, Congo, Gabon and Uganda. Recent large seizures in Côte d’Ivoire involve Guinea and Liberia as additional source countries for trafficked Pangolins.

Shares of global pangolin scale seizures by reported source of shipment, 2015-2018. Salguiero & Stiles (2020).

Nigeria, Uganda and the Democratic Republic of the Congo act as transit countries and logistical hubs for Pangolin and wildlife trafficking more generally. Illegal Pangolin trade in Nigeria seems to have grown significantly in recent years, and the country was the reported provenance of at least 51 tons of Pangolin scales seized in 2019.

Pangolin scale shipments involving Nigeria as a source or destination, 2015-2019 (tons). Salguiero & Stiles (2020).

Based on United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime fieldwork in Cameroon and Uganda in 2018, it appears that the initial hunting of Pangolins for the trade is done by local community members. Wealthier local traders and intermediaries then consolidate their catch into bulk batches and transport them to urban centres where they are trafficked onward by Asian expatriates. In some locations, it is not unusual for a large number of members of a community to be involved in hunting Pangolins, often in addition to their main job as farmers. As a result, there are large numbers of suppliers dispersed throughout rural areas. These suppliers seem to be primarily part-timers.

Entering the illicit trade chain is easy. Without the need for the heavy guns and specialized equipment required for big game hunting, anyone can participate. United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime fieldwork in Cameroon found that prospective new entrants only need supplies costing US$3 to US$5, with hunters making anywhere from US$8 to US$13 for a small live Pangolin and US$25 to US$30 for a large one. In Uganda, hunters report being able to catch anywhere from one to 20 Pangolins per day.

Hunters in Uganda track the Animals and set traps while hunters in Cameroon use wire traps or hunting Dogs. Pangolins, once dead, are immersed in hot water or fire and descaled with a knife. The scales are then dried in the sun in centralised ‘drying camps’ set up by hunters in the forest. Some hunters reported keeping the meat to eat. In Cameroon, scales were also recovered from open bushmeat markets in the region or from restaurants selling the meat. According to United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime fieldwork, most people seem to understand that Pangolins can be sold for profit, which encourages local hunters to catch them whenever possible. Most hunters and even traders interviewed knew very little about the Animal itself and had radically different and often misguided ideas of what consumers used the Animals for, including making bullet-proof vests out of their scales. Local traders and intermediaries consolidate scales until at least 10 kg are ready for transit to urban centres. These operators, some of whom are women, tend to be local residents. They are in contact with international traffickers, who sometimes pay for their services by wire transfer.

The first buyers are often small business owners, local authorities or transportation workers that have enough cash to buy stock from local hunters and pay for transit to urban areas. In fieldwork in Cameroon and Uganda, it was reported that Congolese and Nigerian citizens act as traders and intermediaries. In the urban areas, the goods are sold to international traffickers, primarily Chinese, but also some Nigerians and Vietnamese.

International traffickers tend to be individuals with enough wealth and political connections to ensure protection from the authorities. These include high-level government officials and wealthy business people but can also be foreign workers based in the country for development projects. The number of actors involved in the trafficking from source to destination ranges from five to more than 15 people, with prices paid to each actor increasing the closer one gets to the consumer. For example, in Uganda, traders who consolidate scales are paid quadruple the price per kilogram than that paid to the hunters.

Traders order pangolin scales by the kilo, with a preference for the large scales from Giant Pangolins, Manis gigantea, which hunters report are harder to find. Several hunters described traders seeking them out and requesting they switch to hunting Pangolin rather than other species.

Trafficking is done by sea, air and land, and parcel post is also sometimes used. Shipments may not be well concealed, but they have been found under frozen meat and ice, hidden in logs using candle wax and stuffed inside steel barrels of other goods. Large illegal consignments of Pangolin scales in shipping containers are either misdeclared or concealed under ‘cover loads’ such as plastic waste. International seizures have shown that traffickers are using the same techniques repeatedly, including regular air shipments of relatively small amounts of scales. For example, authorities in the Netherlands have repeatedly seized similarly packaged consignments of about 20 kg of scales from Nigeria in parcel post. Malaysia also seized a series of similarly packed shipments in air cargo from Ghana in 2017. Some are even smuggled in luggage and sent via parcel post declared as wood chips or other commodities.

Traders reported that Pangolin traffickers often use the same routes to export and import Pangolin scales as they do ivory. A third of hunters and traders interviewed in Uganda reported that traffickers take advantage of the weak border controls and security challenges in northern Uganda, Democratic Republic of the Congo and South Sudan to offload the scales they collected, sometimes concealing themselves as impoverished locals to avoid detection at known checkpoints. Traders and traffickers also store stockpiles of scales in countries where the rule of law is weaker and wildlife crime enforcement limited before moving the scales for immediate sale to buyers in more high-risk locations.

The development of logging operations in previously wild areas, bringing with it an influx of people and infrastructure like roads, facilitates hunters’ access to wild pangolin populations, making areas near logging operations particularly vulnerable to Pangolin poaching. In fact, two-thirds of the interviewees in Cameroon noted that traders often transport scales to larger cities on logging trucks, with the scales concealed as wood chips or foodstuffs. A third of the traders interviewed in Uganda mentioned using motorbikes for local transport, although several choose 'fancier' vehicles that belong to official organisations when possible to limit the chances that they will be searched.

Very large individual seizures in 2019 show that Nigeria is the primary point of export of Pangolin shipments, while Viet Nam has emerged as the primary destination. In October 2019, the Chinese government announced having seized 23 tons of Pangolin scales in China in a series of operations. These shipments were coming from Nigeria via the Republic of Korea.

Main trafficking flows and reported origins/destinations of seized Pangolin scales (2007-2018). Salguiero & Stiles (2020).

Ivory traffickers appear to be involved in the Pangolin scale trade, often transporting shipments of ivory and Pangolin specimens together. Recent large seizures of Pangolin scales are often mixed shipments of both Pangolin scales and ivory. 

The interviewed poachers also seem to be of the view that authorities consider crimes associated with Pangolins as less serious than other forms of poaching, for example Elephant poaching. Fear of enforcement action did not appear to play much of a role in their decision-making.

Currently, the market for ivory appears to be in decline, while, according to interviews with hunters in Cameroon and Uganda, Pangolin prices have been going up since 2017. United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime fieldwork in Cameroon and Uganda suggests that some ivory traders may be entering the Pangolin scale trade in response to lower risk. For example, poachers interviewed in Uganda reported that while they used coded language to discuss transactions involving ivory and Rhino horn over the phone, they did not feel the need to take such measures when trading in Pangolin products and openly discussed the number of kilos of Pangolin scales that they wanted to buy or sell. If those involved in the ivory trade are now selling Pangolin scales, this would imply that the Pangolin trade can now build on the supply chain of the well-established ivory market.

Based on seizures, most Pangolin scales are destined for traditional medicine use in China, followed by other Southeast Asian countries. Some 71 per cent of seizures of whole Pangolin equivalents recorded in World WISE between 2007 and 2018, where the destination was known, were destined for China, with 19 per cent bound for Viet Nam. As noted above, this routing seems to have changed dramatically in 2019, where all the major seizures were destined for Viet Nam.

Destination of seizures in whole Pangolin equivalents, 2007-2018. Salguiero & Stiles (2020).

In China, the cities of Fangchengang, Guangzhou and Kunming are key nodes for Pangolin trafficking according to a 2016 study of 206 Chinese seizures. In a survey of five major Chinese cities in 2012, Guangzhou residents reported the highest rates of wildlife consumption for food and as ingredients for traditional medicine. Consumer surveys in 2018 of 1800 people living in Chinese cities with active markets for wildlife products (Beijing, Guangzhou, Harbin, Kunming, Nanning and Shanghai) support the increased demand argument, especially for scales. The number of people who reported they had bought Pangolin products in the last 12 months increased by 12 per cent from previous studies in both Beijing and Shanghai and remained stable in Kunming and Nanning while decreasing only slightly in Guangzhou and Harbin (4 and 3 per cent, respectively). Some 68 per cent of that group reported that they intended to rebuy Pangolin products in the future, suggesting that there is a stable base of buyers regardless of campaigns against the practice. The government announcement in August 2019 that Pangolin products would no longer be covered by China’s state insurance funds could reduce purchases overall.

A 2018 survey of 1500 wildlife product consumers in key Vietnamese cities (Can Tho, Da Nang, Hai Phong, Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City) found similar results and consumer profiles for Pangolin scales and powder. About 60 per cent of the sampled buyers who bought Pangolin products in the last 12 months and 54 per cent of all buyers of Pangolin products surveyed indicated that they would purchase these again, suggesting a strong continuing consumer demand. In addition, 52 per cent of these buyers, who mostly buy from private sellers, reported making an unplanned purchase of Pangolin products influenced by the seller’s recommendation. This suggests that sales pressure drives about half of consumer purchases.

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