Conserving the world’s most trafficked animal

Up to 2.7 million pangolins are killed annually! Just last month, rebels in North Kivu, DRC recently “kidnapped’ a Giant pangolin and sent a letter to conservationist demanding a ransom to release her. What is so special about pangolins? What should be done to save this special animal from the jaws of extinction?

In every 5 minutes, a pangolin is captured from the wild. In 2019, a single shipment of over eight tones of pangolin scales representing at least 14 000 pangolins was seized in Hong Kong. Last year alone an estimated 23.5 tonnes of pangolins were trafficked. If no urgent action is taken, pangolins will assume the status of dinosaurs.

What is a pangolin?

A Pangolin is an insect eating mammal whose body is covered with horny overlapping scales from head to toe. Yes a pangolin feeds its baby (pangopup) with milk. Like humans, mother pangolins carry pups on their back.  Depending on the species, the gestation period of pangolins ranges from 68 to 139 days.

A pangolin is a primarily nocturnal, solitary and shy animal. If startled, it will cover its head with its front legs, exposing its scales to any potential predator. If contacted or grabbed, it will roll up completely into a ball, while the sharp scales on the tail can be used to lash out.

The name pangolin is derived from the Malay word ‘peng-guling’ which means rolling over. Pangolins are bipedal, meaning they can walk on two legs. They have poor vision and hearing, but an excellent sense of smell. They have no teeth. Pangolins use their powerful front claws to dig open termite mounds. They use their long sticky tongue to catch ants and termites. The tongue can extend for up to 41 centimeters!

Types Pangolins

There are eight pangolin species in the world; four in Asia and the remaining four in Africa. The Asian types are; Indian pangolin (Manis crassicaudata), Philippine pangolin (Manis culionensis) Sunda pangolin (Manis javanica) and the Chinese pangolin (Manis pentadactyla).

Black-bellied pangolin (Phataginus tetradactyla), White-bellied Pangolin (Phataginus tricuspis), Giant Ground pangolin (Smutsia gigantea) and the Ground Pangolin (Smutsia/manis temminckii) are the African species.

Two of the four African species are arboreal (they live in trees), while two are ground-dwelling. The ground pangolins live in burrows dug either by themselves or by other animals. The species found in Zimbabwe is the ground pangolin (manis temminckii) and it can weigh up to 20 kg. Zimbabweans old enough will recall the iconic 1997 ZWL$2 coin which was informally referred to as the ‘pangolin’ because it had a pangolin inscribed on one of its sides.

Why the pangolin is trafficked

Thepoaching and illegal trade in pangolins is fuelled by the growing demand for their scales particularly in Asia. The majority of pangolins and their parts are destined for China and Vietnam, where their meat is considered a delicacy and a status symbol.

The keratin scales are used as Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM). They are ground into powder and it is believed that they treat rheumatism, arthritis, skin disorders, chest numbness, ulcer, scrofula and many other infections despite there being no scientific evidence to support the curative properties of these pangolin products. As a matter of fact, Pangolin scales are made  of keratin, the same material that human’s fingernails and hair are made from.

The scales are often administered in the form of scale ash or as slices after being soaked in vinegar, cooking oil, butter or boy’s urine and then roasted with hot sand. Mythical isn’t it? Buyers are increasingly interested in obtaining pangolin scales, supposedly as a cure for breast cancer. It is also believed that pangolin scales are used to cast out evil spirits and to cure deafness.

From my experience in the Magistrates’ Court, the black market price for pangolins in Zimbabwe is between US$3000 to US$5000. In Pretoria, South Africa pangolin scales are reportedly sold for at least US$15 each.

Pangolin Conservation efforts

The International Union for Conservation of Nature Red List of Threatened Species (IUCN Red List) is the world’s most comprehensive inventory of the global conservation status of biological species. All the eight pangolin species are listed as threatened with extinction thereon.

The Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) Conference of Parties 17 (CoP 17)  hosted by South Africa in 2016 saw all 8 pangolin species being listed on CITES Appendix I. For starters CITES has three Appendices and Appendix 1 listing is the best protection that an animal can get under international law. Trade in Appendix 1 species is prohibited and is only permitted in exceptional circumstances.

There was a ray of hope when the Chinese government officially removed pangolin scales from the list of approved ingredients in TCM. However, investigations revealed that the later was just lipstick on a pig. The Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA) unearthed that pangolin scales are still being legally traded in China based on a loophole in the country’s wildlife legislation.

Zimbabwe is one of the countries with the best pangolin protection laws, not only in Africa but in the World. If a person is convicted for any offence involving a pangolin, he or she is sentenced to a minimum of 9 years imprisonment without an option to a pay. Even if convicted for possessing just a single scale, a convict is ordinarily locked up for not less than 9 years.

In 2020, a Hong Kong Court handed down what was said to be its “harshest penalty for a pangolins case”. The court sentenced two men who trafficked 100kg of pangolin scales worth US$51 000 to only 21 and 27 months in jail. This is a mockery of justice.  All countries should emulate Zimbabwe’s pangolin laws if they are committed to be save the animal from extinction.

Despite the deterrent laws in Zimbabwe, pangolin poaching cases are still rampant. Fauna and Flora Zimbabwe (FaFloZim), an environmental conservation organisation documented 30 pangolin cases that spilled into the courts across the country in 2021 alone.

In Zimbabwe, pangolins are intricately linked to traditional cultural beliefs and they are often used by traditional healers for various uses. Some people still believe that pangolins are a royal delicacy for chiefs. FaFloZim is working with chiefs in an effort to spread awareness to conserve the pangolin and to debunk long held myths.

Commenting on the same subject, EnviroPress director Moses Ziyambi said it was critical for the media to take the lead in conservation efforts through information dissemination.

“The media should also play a leading role in raising conservation awareness so as to rescue the world’s most trafficked animal from extinction,” he said.

Devine Chikombera, a Pangolin Champion grant recipient from Save Pangolin says legislation only helps to some extent. He adds that there is need for a holistic approach that will infuse the socio-economic elements with those of the criminal justice system.

It is baffling that the pangolin is an elusive and nocturnal animal which blends with its surrounding environment yet it is the most trafficked animal in the world. I did a random survey with 15 people and none of them has ever seen a pangolin. Finding one in the safari requires sheer luck. If you happen to come across a pangolin in the wild, never post the exact sight location on social media for poachers will come out hunting. 

This report was made possible through support from WAN-IFRA Media Freedom’s Strengthening African Media Programme: Climate Change and Environmental Reporting. Views expressed here do not belong to WAN-IFRA.

Fidelicy Nyamukondiwa is an environmental lawyer and a former Public Prosecutor. He is the director of Fauna and Flora Zimbabwe and is a member of African Wildlife Foundation (AWF)