Shining a spotlight on the world’s most trafficked animal

One of the most unique mammals in the world – the pangolin – has become a highly prized commodity. Illegally trapped, killed, and trafficked by organised crime networks between countries and continents to feed demand for their scales and meat.

From 2016 to 2019, an estimated 206.4 tonnes of pangolin scales were intercepted and confiscated from 52 seizures. This is equivalent to about 360,000 pangolins being poached according to a report by the Wildlife Justice Commission. Many of these pangolins are poached in Africa and then sent across the world to the traditional medicine market in Asia.

The International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW) strategically co-operates with China’s Customs Anti-Smuggling Bureau to promote law enforcement exchanges and cooperation between China Customs and the customs of key countries in Southeast Asia.

IFAW has supported workshops in Asia about cross-border law enforcement to educate and raise awareness of pangolin trafficking. One workshop in September 2018 with China-Vietnam cross-border law enforcement resulted in three large seizures by Vietnam Customs within one month.

In Benin, West Africa, IFAW works with the government to train wildlife crime detection dogs and their human handlers. The mission is to teach dogs how to detect elephant ivory and pangolin scales, while teaching their handlers how to understand the dogs and guide them when searching for wildlife products.

Deploying well-trained and well-equipped canine units is not only a question of national security, but also a public health issue as we have seen the COVID-19 pandemic shine a spotlight on the perils of large-scale wildlife trade.

Reducing the illegal wildlife trade will not only protect the species, it will help protect people as well. Pangolins have been identified as a likely intermediary species in the virus’ journey from a wild animal disease to a human pandemic. Although the jury is still out on the exact path of the virus, what is clear is that repeated and sustained close contact with wild animals, likely facilitated by illegal and legal trade, is a huge risk factor for animal diseases jumping to humans.

In February 2020, China’s legislature, the National People’s Congress, moved quickly to ban the trade and consumption of wild animals. It also stepped up revisions of wildlife protection laws, upgrading the protection of the pangolin to a top-class protected animal.

In June 2020, it was reported that the Chinese government no longer includes pangolin scales on the list of approved raw ingredients for medicinal drugs.

This news could not have come any sooner. Despite the global ban of international trade of pangolins in 2017, they continue to be trafficked at unconscionable levels. According to the Wildlife Justice Commission’s analysis of large-scale seizures of illegal pangolin scale shipments, over 81 tonnes of pangolin scales were seized in 2019 which is a marked increase from about 25 tonnes in 2016.

Mark Hofberg, IFAW campaign officer 

Image Credit: Shavez Cheema (1StopBorneo Wildlife)

March 2021