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Pangolin – most illegally traded animal in the world

Skinned Pangolin

Pangolins are the most illegally traded wild animal in the world.  Estimates suggest one is being poached somewhere in the world every 5 minutes. As a result the numbers of wild pangolin have dramatically declined (and as we saw in the article on Pangolins title of article they are exceedingly difficult to keep alive in captivity.)

Sacks of pangolin scales

In 2017, the government of Cameroon burned eight tonnes of confiscated pangolin scales, which works out at around 15 000 murdered animals.  While their exact numbers are not known the rarity of sightings of pangolin in the wild, coupled with the massive volume illegal trade suggests they are rapidly approaching extinction.

Medicine from pangolin scales
Pills made from Pangolin

Pangolin scales are made of exactly the same stuff as our fingernails (with no medicinal properties) but they are being slaughtered by their thousands because some people (e.g. 70% of Chinese citizens) believe that pangolin products have medicinal value. A study found that in traditional Chinese medicine the pangolin’s blood, body parts and scales are used to cure 42 conditions, from infertility, to stomach ulcers, cancer and asthma, to removing bad luck, or warding off evil forces.  The Chinese government has even permitted some hospitals to use pangolin medicines as treatment for patients.  

(See the article below about the change in Chinese government policy on importing wildlife since the Covid outbreak.)

 In Nigerian traditional Yorubic medicine, pangolins are used to ‘enable invisibility’. Pangolins are also hunted for their meat, which is considered a delicacy by some people, and as fashion accessories.

Pangolin - culinary use

The illegal trade in pangolins is big business for all people concerned – estimated to be worth about $19 billion a year.  The average monthly wage for an Indonesian working full-time on a plantation is $47 and poaching pangolin can earn 10 times as much.  Against this economic reality the temptation to poach a pangolin is hard to resist when it is just a matter of picking up a small animal that has rolled itself into a convenient ball (unlike the difficulties and  dangers inherent in poaching, for example, rhino horn.) An average pangolin will be sold by poachers for between $168–$217 to shady middlemen who sell it on for between $1,500 – $2,500. The scales of sell for between $600–$1,000 per kilo. 

Reasons for pangolin poaching


Pangolin Poaching is rife in Zimbabwe

Jail for pangolin poaching
Zimbabwean pangolin poachers


Earlier this year the Chinese government banned the importation of wild animals for consumption, in an attempt to curb further animal-human disease cross-over such as Covid 19 – which might have been good news for pangolins. The following article looks at what has happened to this ban.

China’s Epidemic-Inspired Wildlife Ban Has Had Big Economic Costs


Wildlife imports ban affects traders

in Caixin,
August 13, 2020 23:33 JST 3m 31s 3m 31s,

China’s ban on wild animal consumption has affected the jobs of a quarter of a million people since it took effect earlier this year in the wake of the country’s coronavirus outbreak, a new report has found.

The rules, which forbid the sale and consumption of species both from the wild and bred in captivity, including snakes, porcupines and bamboo rats, have left businesses unable to sell animals worth 11 billion yuan ($1.58 billion) and scotched infrastructure investment worth 7.4 billion yuan, according to a report published Monday by a legal watchdog affiliated with the national legislature.

Shen Yueyue, the vice chairwoman of the National People’s Congress Standing Committee, stated in the report that dismantling the domestic wildlife industry and paying compensation to breeders are creating “considerable” economic pressure and stymieing poverty alleviation work.

China imposed the ban in February during a deadly outbreak of COVID-19 in the central city of Wuhan, where the virus was linked to a seafood market at which live animals were sold. The decision aimed to outlaw activities that can cause harmful viruses to pass from animals to humans, even though the coronavirus’s transmission route remains unclear.

The report follows a government inspection conducted between May and July that examined how strictly the consumption ban and wildlife protection laws were being implemented.

It found that officials on the Chinese mainland had shuttered more than 10,000 animal markets and businesses since February and had processed nearly 500 crimes relating to the illegal wildlife trade.

Despite praising the crackdown for achieving “full coverage,” inspectors highlighted problems with the ban, concluding that many businesses were struggling to pivot to new industries.

They also found that government laws and mechanisms for controlling the wildlife trade were not up to snuff. Officials in some areas had ordered businesses to close even though they were not raising prohibited animals, or had failed to provide timely and adequate compensation to affected workers, they said. Some business owners were left with large numbers of animals they were not allowed to sell or kill but could not afford to maintain.

The report also took aim at government departments for dragging their feet on much-needed additions to the protected species list, which has not been significantly updated since it came into force in 1989.

Environmental groups have long criticized the list for failing to include many threatened species. In June, China’s Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Affairs, alongside the National Forestry and Grassland Administration, jointly released an expanded list for public comment.

Additionally, the report said the overlapping responsibilities of government departments diluted the implementation of wildlife laws and regulations. In some cases, agencies in charge of forestry, fisheries and animal health all had roles in controlling parts of the wildlife industry — for instance by issuing permits, imposing quarantines, and overseeing the sale, transport, import and export of animals.

China’s coronavirus outbreak earlier this year sparked a widespread public backlash against the domestic wildlife trade, which critics say threatens public health and imperils biodiversity.

Although wild animal consumption is less common than in the past, it remains deep-rooted in some parts of the country. In some cases, the practice has links to traditional medicine.

Paddy Pacey

Zimbabwean field guide and trainer of aspiring guides

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