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Pangolin scales — armour-like, keratin-based plates that cover a pangolin’s body — are still being used in medicines sold and produced by companies in China, a new report has found. This is being done despite the Chinese government banning pangolin scales from the official list of approved ingredients in traditional Chinese medicine (TCM), and even giving the highest level of national protection to three species — the Chinese (Manis pentadactyla), Sunda (M. javanica) and Indian (M. crassicaudata) pangolins — back in June.

In the days following the pangolin scale ban, the Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA), a London-based nonprofit, reported that pangolin scales were still present in eight patent medicines in China ’s 2020 pharmacopoeia, a reference book for TCM practitioners, although scales had been removed from the list of raw ingredients. On Oct. 13, EIA released a new report that expands upon these earlier findings.

It reveals that 56 Chinese companies are actively producing and advertising 64 medicines containing pangolin scales, and that a further 165 companies and 713 hospitals are currently licensed to manufacture and sell these products.

One company selling pangolin-based medicine is China Beijing Tong Ren Tang Group Co. Ltd., the country’s largest TCM pharmaceutical company, which has subsidiaries in many parts of the world, as well as shareholders from major European and U.S. investment funds, the report says.

Many of these pangolin-based products are available for sale on the various companies’ websites, as well as e-commerce platforms such as eBay, according to the report.

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“This is further evidence that China is maintaining its legal market, and that pharmaceutical companies are able to sell these products,” Chris Hamley, senior pangolin campaigner at EIA, told Mongabay. “The trade has not been banned.”

The EIA report also suggests that China’s national insurance scheme continues to cover pangolin scale medicines, despite the Chinese government’s 2019 announcement that insurance would cease this coverage.

“While the yinpian — the semi-processed scale — had been removed from coverage, actually five [medicines containing pangolin scales] are remaining on there,” Hamley said. “Four of those remained on the list that had been published … in 2017, and a new one was actually added in 2019. It’s almost the opposite of what was widely believed to have been the case … it shows that the Chinese government is endorsing use of pangolin scales and stimulating demand by actually paying for TCM consumers in China to use pangolin scale medications.”

However, the China Biodiversity Conservation and Green Development Foundation (CBCGDF), an environmental nonprofit that has helped facilitate protective measures for pangolins in China, says the removal of yinpian from national insurance coverage was still a positive move.

“This is a big progress as it gives a heavy blow to the pangolin scale market which now is severely limited and even stopped by this newly announced decision on shrinking the medicine insurance coverage,” Cyan Wang, international coordinator of CBCGDF, told Mongabay in an emailed statement. “In addition, the market TCM with the ingredients of pangolin and its parts is further influenced. A … [lot of] progress [has been made] in the reduction and even eradication of the usage of pangolin in medicine is foreseeable.”

She added that the national insurance scheme has rolled out new interim measures that will place further restrictions on pangolin scale medications, forbidding any medicines containing parts of endangered or rare wildlife.

Pharmaceutical companies and hospitals wishing to produce pangolin-based medication are only able to source scales from government-registered stockpiles, Hamley said. While there are some regulations on how these stockpiles are managed, the legal origin does not need to be verified, according to the EIA report.

“The Chinese Government claims its wildlife product traceability scheme ensures pangolin scales used in approved medicines originate only from old verified stockpiles, but there is a mismatch between availability and demand,” the report says. “Lacking traceability and transparency, the regulatory system has pervasive opportunities for laundering pangolin scales illegally sourced from throughout Asia and Africa.”

Wang says the current stockpile management system does have its pitfalls, but that illegally sourced pangolin scales could be stamped out with stricter recording efforts, DNA testing, and harsher penalties for those involved in the illegal trade.

All eight species of pangolins are protected under CITES Appendix I, which prohibits trade except in exceptional circumstances, but this regulation does not forbid domestic trade within China itself.

A recent report by the Washington, D.C.-based Center For Advanced Defense (C4ADS) found that the international pangolin trade is growing at a rapid rate. Between 2015 and 2019, the report says, 253 metric tons of pangolin scales were confiscated, and the annual amount of pangolin scales seized had increased by almost 400%.

While the EIA report suggests that the pangolin trade is persisting in China, and that any regulatory measures have so far been ineffective, the team at CBCGDF says there has still been major progress in pangolin conservation in China.

“We hold the positive attitude that the global pangolin smuggling trade will encounter a major turning point and greatly decrease,” Wang said. “Facts will prove that our estimation is reasonable.”

Featured image by: Flickr 

This article was originally published on Mongabay, written by Elizabeth Claire Alberts , and is republished here as part of an editorial partnership with Earth.Org.

Pangolins have been locally extinct in South Africa’s KwaZulu-Natal province for the last 30 or 40 years, experts say. But now, local conservationists are working to slowly reintroduce these shy, sensitive animals in a world-first effort to reinstate wild populations.

The eight species of pangolins together are considered to be one of the most widely trafficked animals in the world, despite the trade being prohibited under CITES. Due to the trade’s illegality, poachers and smugglers work hard to avoid detection, but authorities still manage to intercept thousands of these trafficked animals and their body parts each year. In 2019 alone, authorities seized more than 97 tons of scales from more than 150,000 African pangolins, according to the African Pangolin Working Group, although this is believed to only represent a small fraction of the trade originating from Africa.

Historically, the pangolin trade has been fueled by traditional Chinese medicine, which values pangolin scales for their medicinal qualities, despite the fact that they only contain keratin, the same substance found in human hair and fingernails. However, China recently banned the trade of pangolins within the country, which may help stop, or at least stall, the global trade of the species. Pangolins are also hunted and traded for their meat, which is considered to be a delicacy in some countries, including many African nations.

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pangolins extinct
A pangolin sticking out its long tongue. Image by Francois Meyer (Source: Mongabay).

The Temminck’s pangolin (Smutsia temminckii), also known as the ground pangolin, has a wide range across Africa, but is considered “ecologically extinct” across KwaZulu-Natal, the easternmost province in South Africa, according to Ray Jansen, an advisory authority on the species for the IUCN. While an “odd pangolin” might reside in some northern parts of the province, he told Mongabay, the population as a whole is not viable.

The loss of the species in the KwaZulu-Natal is mainly due to pangolin poaching and trafficking, although Temminck’s pangolins are also commonly electrocuted by the fences separating parks, nature reserves and private properties.

For the last 10 years, the team at the African Pangolin Working Group (APWG) have been rescuing pangolins from the trade, and rehabilitating them so they can eventually be released back into the wild in South Africa. But it was only in 2019 that the team started reintroducing pangolins into the KwaZulu-Natal province, where they’ve been ecologically extinct.

“They’re all pretty much in a very bad way when they come out of the trade,” said Jansen, who chairs the APWG. “They don’t feed in captivity, so they’re generally quite emaciated and dehydrated and extremely stressed.”

The first stop for these rescued pangolins is Johannesburg Wildlife Veterinary Hospital, a nonprofit facility that only treats wildlife. In most cases, the pangolins need antibiotics to help ward off illnesses that they picked up while being trafficked, Jansen said. If they survive this process, they’re placed in what he calls a “soft release” program.

“We found that this soft facilitated release is far more successful than simply opening a cage door and letting the animal go,” Jansen said. “We’ve seen it with other wildlife as well. When you transport and transpose other animals like lions and buffaloes and elephants, you first need to put them into a boma [corral] firstly to feed them there for a couple of weeks, get them accustomed to the habitat, the food, the environment, the sights, the sounds. Pangolins are no different.”

During the soft release period, caretakers will take the pangolins for long walks in the reserve to ensure they can find enough ants and termites to eat, then take them back to a secure shelter to sleep.

“We have to go and physically walk behind them for anywhere from four to seven hours every single evening so that they can forage,” Jansen said. “It requires a huge amount of effort and manpower.”

The soft release program may only take days or up to three weeks, depending on the animal’s ability to adapt to its surroundings, Jansen said. When they’re eventually released, caretakers continue to observe them through GPS satellite-based and VHF radio-based tracking tags. They also regularly weigh the pangolins and give them medical checkups.

In 2019, the team rescued 43 pangolins from the trade, and reintroduced seven into the Phinda Private Game Reserve in KwaZulu-Natal province. Phinda was an ideal release site because of its large size and the “good team on the ground,” Jansen said.

“Out of the seven we’ve released on Phinda, one individual got a very large tick infection and got biliary and died, and another individual … swam across a large river then was taken by a crocodile,” Jansen said. “But these are natural deaths that aren’t related to the trade.”

The other five pangolins are “doing well,” Simon Naylor, manager of the Phinda Private Game Reserve, told Mongabay.

“They’ve found food, they’ve found burrows, and they’ve survived the full 12 months of summer and winter, and they’re still here … and this is a success,” Naylor said. However, he added that the ultimate measure of success would be when the pangolins started to reproduce.

One of the five pangolins is a young male named Rampfy who was picked up on the side of the road near Kruger National Park in 2018, and hand-raised by a number of individuals.

“This little male is quite special,” Naylor said. “No [Temminck’s] pangolin has ever been hand-raised and released back into the wild, and he’s been out in the wild since November and doing very well. I think it just shows that with a lot of efforts, we can successfully hand-raise and release these animals, and give them a second chance.”

There are plans to reintroduce more pangolins into the Phinda Private Game Reserve, Naylor said. In fact, they’re expecting another pangolin to arrive shortly.

“I think this is a very special project, and no one knew how it would turn out,” Naylor said. “They’re very stressed animals when they arrive here, and it’s been a lot of hard work … very late nights, long hours. We’ve put a lot of funding towards it, with the monitoring, especially. But I think for the species, it bodes well — we’ve managed to show that we can successfully reintroduce these animals.”

Featured image by: Francois Meyer for Mongabay

This article was originally published on Mongabay, written by Elizabeth Claire Alberts , and is republished here as part of an editorial partnership with Earth.Org. 


The Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species, popularly known as CITES, is a rare animal: an international environmental treaty with teeth. It regulates the global trade in some of the world’s most threatened species, with the power to ban it when needed.

Now, 45 years after it came into force, CITES appears to be having its moment of reckoning as a result of the COVID-19 crisis. The convention is ratified by almost all countries of the world, including the U.S. and China, and is binding. Even the Paris climate agreement is not enforceable.

In March, when the World Health Organization declared COVID-19 a pandemic, questions flew thick and fast about the novel coronavirus’s link to the wildlife trade. While conservation groups jumped at the chance to highlight the relationship between pandemics and wildlife exploitation, the CITES Secretariat, responsible for coordinating the work of its parties, appeared to distance itself from the crisis. “Matters regarding zoonotic diseases are outside of CITES’s mandate,” it said in a statement, “and therefore the CITES Secretariat does not have the competence to make comments regarding the recent news on the possible links between human consumption of wild animals and COVID-19.”

This sparked outrage and invited scrutiny. “What the statement actually said is that they don’t care. They don’t care about what is happening in the world; they think it’s none of their business,” said Vera Weber, president of the Switzerland-based NGO Franz Weber Foundation. “And it says they can’t do anything about it, which is not true because trade, be it legal or illegal, is fueling these pandemics.”

Can CITES as it exists today help ward off the next pandemic, many conservationists are wondering. It should be part of the solution, many believe.

“CITES has enjoyed keeping its rather narrow focus,” John Scanlon, who served as CITES secretary-general from 2010 to 2018, told Mongabay. He said that means it doesn’t directly address non-trade issues like climate impacts, invasive species or animal welfare. “It has tended to want to stick to the sustainability issues,” said Scanlon, who now consults for the NGO African Parks.

That narrow focus is a blessing, according to some experts. Protecting threatened species from being decimated by the international wildlife trade, both legal and illegal, is a monumental undertaking. And the multilateral treaty has recorded some hard-won successes, most notably the banning of trade in elephant ivory in 1990. In the decade preceding the ban, over 50,000 African elephants were hunted down every year for their tusks.

However, the ban has had limited success in stifling the illegal ivory trade. CITES relies on national governments to enforce its edicts, and without their consistent and sustained cooperation, many CITES regulations fail to achieve their objectives.

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African grey elephants

Some see a by-the-book reading of its mandate as a failing in the face of the coronavirus disaster. “The secretariat tends to forget that CITES cannot only be characterized as a trade agreement, but it is also part of international environmental law,” Weber said.

Many experts, including Weber, favor expanding the agreement, rather than replacing or sidelining it.

“It seems that CITES, as it stands, has become obsolete. It needs to be renewed. It needs to be modernized. It needs to be taken into the 21st century,” she said. “We can’t go on talking about trading in endangered species, when we have such big biodiversity loss in the world. This loss of biodiversity and loss of habitats are also causing pandemics such as COVID-19.”

Getting countries to agree on enforceable treaties is an arduous process that takes years. The Paris climate accord came on the back of over twenty years of climate talks and at least four years of purposeful negotiations. The urgency created by the pandemic may not generate enough political will to produce a new agreement.

CITES covers around 35,000 species of plants and animals whose survival experts believe may be threatened by international trade. The convention classifies them into three categories or appendices, each subject to increasingly restrictive trade regulations based on the risk that global trade poses to their populations in the wild. Though large, the treaty covers only a fraction of the 8.7 million species of plants and animals on Earth.

The convention does not regulate trade in many of the animals known to pose a health risk to humans.

Horseshoe bats, a family of bats considered to be a potential reservoir for the virus that causes SARS and a possible host species for the novel coronavirus, are not listed in CITES. Neither is the Asian palm civet (Paradoxurus hermaphroditus), the intermediary species from which the SARS coronavirus may have jumped to humans.

What has made it difficult for groups to get behind calls for change is the gaping hole at the center of the COVID-19 chronicle. We still do not know how the novel coronavirus, called SARS–CoV-2, jumped from animals to humans. This is likely to remain a mystery for months, if not years. It may remain a mystery forever. Even today, no one is quite sure how the Ebola virus slid from wild animals into human populations. Scientists have discounted as baseless the idea that the novel coronavirus was engineered in a lab or accidentally released from a lab.

Currently, most experts believe the spillover happened when someone foraging for food or involved in trading live wild animals came in contact with an animal carrying the SARS-CoV-2 virus or an ancestor of the virus. This animal may have been a bat or an intermediary host. There are suggestions that the virus jumped to humans from pangolins. This has led to more questions for CITES. While it may not regulate trade in horseshoe bats or palm civets, pangolins enjoy the highest level of protection under the convention. Trade in all eight species of these threatened mammals is illegal. These scaly anteaters are considered the most illegally trafficked mammals in the world.

The COVID-19 pandemic has raised questions that go beyond the international illegal wildlife trade. The virus could have entered human communities through legal or illegal trade in wild animals.  Pangolins are found not just in Africa but also in South Asia and Southeast Asia, including in China.  A recent paper noted similarities between the coronavirus infecting humans and one found in Sunda pangolins (Manis javanica), native to Southeast Asia. The virus could have emerged from and been transported by animals captured domestically or transported from other countries.

The uncertainty has allowed some policymakers and agencies to resist calls for change to environmental policies. For others, however, it means they need to cast a broader net.

“Any environmental treaty has to be a living instrument because it needs to keep adapting and responding to threats to the species that the treaty deals with,” said Shruti Suresh, a lawyer with the U.K.-based Environmental Investigation Agency. “The existing CITES framework can be applied to tackle public health concerns associated with wildlife trade, for example, through initiatives to close domestic markets and eliminate demand.”

Another possible approach would be to craft a new agreement to address trade in species that pose a threat to human health. But some experts note that such a treaty could be duplicative of CITES, and that might make the regulatory framework more cumbersome. “[What] we are suggesting is that the CITES treaty essentially be amended to support the regulation of trade in wild animals that affects humans,” said Dan Ashe from the Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA), a U.S.-based NGO. “We have an existing mechanism for enforcement, that seems to us to be an order of magnitude more available as opposed to building a brand new international enforceable agreement.”

But amending CITES may not be enough to address the issues raised by the COVID-19 pandemic, even those related to wildlife exploitation.

Apart from being expanded, there is a pressing need to strengthen CITES and reinforce the architecture of global environmental law in which it is embedded, experts say.

The treaty does not tackle wildlife crime, per se, and does not apply to environmental transgressions that occur within national boundaries. It lays down regulations for the import, export and re-export of certain wildlife and wildlife products, which have to be enforced by the countries that are signatories to the convention. Countries have their own laws that deal with crimes like poaching, illegal logging and illegal fishing.

Domestic crimes fuel the transnational illicit trade in wildlife and wildlife products — everything from live animals and animal parts, to precious timber. Wildlife trafficking is one of the most lucrative illegal trades in the world, rivaling in value the trade in drugs, weapons, and human traffic.  But it is often not treated as a serious crime by many countries.

Because of the complexity of the global trade in wildlife, CITES collaborates with organizations like INTERPOL, the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, the World Bank, and the World Customs Organization through the International Consortium on Combating Wildlife Crime.

“At the moment we have this sort of mishmash system,” Scanlon said. “the implications of these wildlife crimes are so great, we need to focus the international community’s attention on it, and the attention of the criminal justice system on it.”

Scanlon said he favored raising the profile of wildlife crimes by adding a protocol under the U. N. Convention against Transnational Organized Crime (UNTOC), which currently focuses primarily on human trafficking and the illegal arms trade. Suresh agreed that this would be a positive step. “It would shine a spotlight on wildlife crime as organized crime, not just something that is about legal and illegal trade, which is the lens that CITES tends to use.” It could ensure better coordination and support from enforcement agencies in countries, she said.

The responsibility to bring about change, however, will ultimately rest with the nations that are party to these agreements. There is a growing sense that difficult decisions need to be made and implemented soon, and CITES may be a place to start.

“The decision-making authorities under the CITES are the world governments that have signed up to it. If we want this issue to be front and center and addressed we don’t have to wait for the CITES secretariat,” Suresh said. “The parties need to be bringing this issue front and center [at] the next CITES meeting whether that’s EU, Asian states, African states or China itself.”

This article was originally published on Mongabay, written by Malavika Vyawahare, and is republished here as part of an editorial partnership with Earth.Org. 

In early June, it was widely reported that the Chinese government had banned pangolin scales in traditional Chinese medicine (TCM), and that all pangolin species now had the highest level of protection within China. This news grabbed headlines around the world, and conservationists hailed the move as a positive step toward halting the illegal pangolin trade. But some experts say this celebration was premature.

The team at the Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA) recently obtained a copy of China’s 2020 pharmacopoeia, a reference book for TCM practitioners, and found that while pangolin scales had been removed from the list of raw ingredients, pangolin scales were still listed as a key ingredient in various patent medicines.

“We were not surprised to learn that pangolin scales remained in the 2020 pharmacopoeia,” Chris Hamley, senior pangolin campaigner at EIA, told Mongabay. “In fact we had warned soon after the reports started to appear in the international media on 9 June that China’s widely publicized pangolin protections might not mean a total ban on their use in traditional Chinese medicine. This has happened before with leopard bone and bear bile — both were removed as a key ingredient but maintained as ingredients in patent medicine formulations.”

EIA identified eight medicines in the 2020 pharmacopoeia that contain pangolin scales, including Zaizao Wan, a pill said to aid blood circulation, and Awei Huapi Gao, a medicine used to treat abdominal pain. While patent medicines are processed, ready-made products, Hamley said that licensed hospitals and pharmaceutical companies can legally obtain pangolin scales to produce and sell these medicines.

There are also 72 additional TCM products containing pangolin scales that aren’t listed in the 2020 pharmacopoeia, but that can still be legally sold within China, Hamley said.

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pangolin trade
A page from China’s 2020 pharmacopoeia that shows a list of approved ingredients for the patent medicine, Awei Huapi Gao. The characters circled read “pangolin.” Image by EIA.

Hamley says the trade may be continuing based on an exemption in Article 27 of China’s Wildlife Protection Law, which specifies that protected wildlife can be sold, purchased and utilized for scientific research, captive breeding, public exhibition or performances, heritage conservation, and other special purposes.

“There are unlikely to be any major changes in demand for pangolin scales,” Hamley said. “The drivers of demand associated with the use of pangolin scales in TCM in China still remain. With licenced companies and hospitals still able to legally produce TCM medicines containing pangolin scales based on formulae in the pharmacopoeia and other national lists, there will continue to be demand for raw pangolin scales from the TCM industry.”

EIA isn’t the only organization to point out the contradictory nature of China’s policy on pangolin scales. TRAFFIC, an NGO that monitors the illegal trade of wild animals and plants, also said pangolin scales were still being promoted as medicinal ingredients.

“The situation is not clear-cut — medicinal use of pangolins is no longer endorsed by the main text of the TCM pharmacopoeia, but pangolin scales are still included in some of the prescriptions listed in the Annex of the printed publication,” TRAFFIC wrote in a tweet to BBC News after it published an article on China’s removal of pangolins from TCM.

There are also concerns about the current government-held stockpiles of pangolin scales, which can be legally used at approximately 700 licensed hospitals and to produce about 70 patented medicines, according to TRAFFIC. Between 2008 and 2015, about 26.6 tons of pangolin scales were used each year. However, it’s not known how many scales are currently in these stockpiles, or the exact source of these stockpiles, and conservationists are worried that pangolin scales will be illegally laundered into these stockpiles if the system isn’t properly managed.

“[A]t the very least, every province needs to have a transparent and standardized system to manage pangolin stockpiles to prevent any laundering of illegally sourced pangolin parts into legal channels,” Richard Thomas of TRAFFIC told Mongabay. “As we have seen in recent years, a number of very large-scale pangolin seizures have been made by Chinese customs, so clearly there is ongoing illegal supply of pangolin products that needs to be shut down. There’s a clear need for wildlife protection management departments to co-operate with the traditional Chinese medicine sector to eliminate potential illegal and unsustainable use of pangolin products.”

The eight species of pangolins are the most widely trafficked animal in the world, with more than a million of these animals poached and illegally traded since the year 2000. In 2016, CITES, an international treaty that protects endangered plants and animals, uplisted pangolins to Appendix I, which bans all international trade. However, CITES regulations do not apply to any domestic trade of the species.

Hamley said the illegal trade of pangolin scales has not slowed down in recent weeks, despite the apparent removal of pangolin scales from pharmacopoeia.

“EIA is currently monitoring the trans-national trafficking and trade of pangolin scales by criminal networks, and we can confirm that large, multiple ton shipments of pangolin scales continue to be trafficked from Africa to southeast Asia for onward shipment into China,” Hamley said. “COVID-19 has had some logistical consequences that have slowed down wildlife trafficking activity, but traffickers in Africa continue to source pangolin scales in significant quantities for export to Asia.”

UPDATE 06/28/2020: In response to this article, a spokesperson for China Biodiversity Conservation and Green Development Foundation (CBCGDF) stated that there is currently no legal procedure to stop the production of patent medicines, which are owned and protected by various companies, and that the Chinese government has done its best to remove pangolins from TCM.

Featured image by: USAID Asia 

This article was originally published on Mongabay, written by Elizabeth Claire Alberts, and is republished here as part of an editorial partnership with Earth.Org. 


Pangolin scales have been removed from a 2020 listing of ingredients approved for use in traditional Chinese medicine (TCM). The move has been applauded by animal protection groups, who say that it will help curb trade of the pangolin, the most trafficked animal in the world. 

Reported by China’s Health Times newspaper, the news comes after the country’s State Forestry and Grassland Administration (SFGA) raised the protected status of pangolins to the highest level earlier this month with immediate effect.

Zhou Jinfeng, secretary general of the China Biodiversity Conservation and Green Development Foundation, says, “I am very encouraged. Our continuous efforts for several years have not been in vain. But we still have a long way to go. We need to be vigilant about so-called ‘captive breeding’ and medicinal research because some wrong findings could lead to the wrong policy decisions.”

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The trade of all eight species of pangolin are protected under international law and three of the four of these species are native to Asia, which are included on the red list of the International Union for Conservation of Nature as endangered species, including the functionally extinct Chinese pangolin.  

In February, the China’s National People’s Congress enforced a ban on the consumption of meat from wild animals, although clarification as to what wildlife will still be allowed for use in TCM and the fur and leather industries is expected once China finalises the revisions to its wildlife protection law. 

Although the SFGA currently permits TCM pharmaceutical companies to use parts from previous stockpiles or so called, poorly regulated ‘farmed’ wildlife, this practice is shown to enable the trafficking of animals. 

Up to 200 000 pangolins are consumed each year in Asia for their scales and meat. More than 130 tons of scales and live and dead animals were seized in cross-border trafficking busts in 2019, which is estimated to represent up to 400 000 animals

Pangolin meat is eaten by China’s elite in the hope of reaping health or sexual benefits, even though early TCM texts warn against eating the animals.

Since 2015, more than 14 000 whole pangolins have been seized at border crossings in Asia, with 95% of those in shipments of 21 animals or more. 99% of all whole pangolin seizures have occurred in Asia, with 24% of those at China’s borders, followed by Vietnam and India. Most whole pangolins are trafficked from Laos, Thailand and India. 

Amanda Shaver, a wildlife crime analyst with C4ADS, says, “There has been a significant drop in reporting on pangolin seizures since December 2019. This is most likely due to the increased media focus and coverage on COVID-19, but our databases have not recorded a single seizure of whole pangolin in Asia in 2020.”

Regarding seizures of pangolin scales, in the past five years, 32% have been at mainland China’s border, although Hong Kong accounted for 17%. C4ADS says that the top sources for scales are Nigeria (25%), Malaysia (17%) and Indonesia (12%). 

Featured image by: A. J. T. Johnsingh, WWF-India and NCF 

An international wildlife watchdog says that poaching on endangered species could rebound as authorities divert attention to enforcing COVID-19 lockdown measures, and reports stockpiling of ivory and other animal products. 

The Wildlife Justice Commission says that a ban on the sale of wild animals in China is causing backlogs in smuggling networks of pangolin scales and ivory across Southeast Asia and warned that gangs and syndicates are adapting to tighter border controls amid the pandemic.

The WJC has reported stockpiles of ivory in Cambodia, Vietnam and Laos. In Vietnam, smugglers had access to 22 tonnes of pangolin scales. 

The pangolin is one of the most trafficked animals on the planet, their scales desired for their medicinal qualities in many Asian countries. Several studies have suggested that the emergence of COVID-19 in China was from the virus passing to humans from pangolins, prompting authorities in Beijing to ban the trade and sale of wild animal products.

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Sarah Stoner, WJC’s director of intelligence, says, “Brokers intend on returning their operations to previous levels as soon as possible. The stockpiling of huge quantities of wildlife products in many of the key countries concerned presents investigative opportunities for law enforcement.”

Tate, former Marine and the founder of VetPaw, a group of American military veterans who fight poachers in a remote private reserve in South Africa, says “poaching doesn’t stop just because there’s a virus- if anything, it picks up.” 

Stoner echoes this view, saying that she expects high-value wildlife smuggling and poaching to rebound when COVID-19 restrictions are lifted. 

A global lockdown has meant that authorities and resources are being diverted to law enforcement and medical aid to help those affected with the virus. This has left a pocket of opportunity for criminal syndicates to take advantage of the reduced surveillance of protected areas and park closures, leading to several seizures of illegal wild animal trades across Asia and Africa.

There have been several major busts of illicit animal products across Asia and Africa following most of the world going into lockdown, including the seizure of more than six tonnes of pangolin scales in Malaysia at the end of April. 

Stoner warns that governments need to enforce stricter border controls. She says, “additional resources should be allocated to this problem and not merely diverting current resources to focus on the markets and leave organised crime a free hand.” 

Africa has always been a hotspot for poaching, and during the COVID-19 pandemic, poachers have encroached on land that they normally wouldn’t visit in tourist hot spots, which are now empty of visitors and safari guides. 

Botswana officials are evacuating black rhinos in the Okavango Delta, after a surge of rhino killings by poachers in March that left at least six animals dead. They consider the evacuation necessary because they’re increasingly concerned that poachers are encouraged by the absence of safari tourists in the region during the pandemic. Reduced human presence allows poachers to move around more freely and last month, six poachers were killed by law enforcement, according to Botswana’s Ministry of Environment, Natural Resources Conservation and Tourism.

The Botswana government released a statement saying that it has been intensifying anti-poaching surveillance efforts in the past month. 

Further aggravating the issue is that people working in tourism are being laid off and national parks that provide wildlife with a safe haven are losing revenue. All three national parks in Rwanda have temporarily closed, along with Virunga National Park in the Democratic Republic of Congo and the Kruger National Park in South Africa. 

As the virus harms African economies and raises unemployment levels, people may become desperate for income, turning to poaching to make a living 

Poaching threatens to send black and white rhinos, elephants and other African wildlife into extinction over the next few decades. Since 1960, the black rhino population has dropped 97.6%. In the last 21 years, the lion population has dropped 42%, according to the World Wildlife Fund. At least 35 000 African elephants are killed each year. 

While Africa’s ‘Big Five’ is arguably the most popular group of animals on the continent, the term shining light on their path to extinction, other species that are just as vulnerable do not receive the same attention, and therefore do not benefit from the same level of conservation efforts. Who are Africa’s ‘Forgotten Five’?

The ‘Big Five’- a term coined by big-game hunters- refers to the five most difficult animals in Africa to hunt on foot, and is now a more widely-used term. The lion, leopard, rhinoceros, elephant and African buffalo have come to exemplify Africa’s exotic wilderness.

While all of these animals are experiencing declining populations due to poaching and are all classified as ‘vulnerable’ to ‘critically endangered’ by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List of Threatened Species, being part of the ‘Big Five’ ensemble has accorded them a significant amount of conservation effort aimed towards protecting them against poaching, habitat loss and human-wildlife conflict, unlike the ‘Forgotten Five’.

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Remembering Africa’s “Forgotten Five”
Also known as the ‘Barometer of Life’, the Red List allows conservationists to identify which species need the most help (Source: Birdlife.org).

The ‘Forgotten Five’ is a term coined by Namibia’s Rare & Endangered Species Trust (REST), founded in 2000 by Maria Diekmann. The trust aims to raise public consciousness on some of Africa’s neglected species. They are the Cape vulture, Temminck’s pangolin, Damara dik-dik, Anchieta’s dwarf python and spotted rubber frog.

Cape Griffon Vulture

The most misunderstood of the ‘Forgotten Five’. The Cape Vulture is threatened mainly by electrocution from flying into electric lines, and poisoning. Farmers used to poison the bodies of dead vultures and set them out as bait to kill the predators threatening their livestock, such as jackals. While Cape Vultures are practically harmless to livestock as they are scavengers, they inadvertently die of poisoning when they unknowingly feed on poisoned carcasses. Since these highly social birds tend to feast together in large flocks, a great many can be killed simultaneously. According to Diekmann, a single poisoned carcass ‘can kill 50 to 100 birds at once’. 

Although REST succeeded in halting the farmers’ indiscriminate baiting practices, the threat remains, now in the form of poisoning by hunters who wish to profit from the traditional medicine market. Some customs believe that eating the brains of vultures can endow one with the ability of a seer. 

The Cape Vulture was declared ‘extinct as a breeding species’ in Namibia, Eswatini and central Zimbabwe in 1994, 1997 and 2015 respectively. The latest population assessment in 2016 estimated a remaining population of 9 400 individuals in South Africa, with numbers dwindling fast.

The plight of Cape Vultures is not unique to them. Its Asian counterparts suffered mass poisoning from the drug Diclofenac, used to treat cattle. So severe was the decline in the populations of the Asian vultures that some researchers called it the ‘Asian Vulture Crisis’. Illustrating the extent of the crisis, the White-rumped Vulture population experienced a staggering drop from several millions in the 1990s to less than 10 000 in 2017. Despite numerous governments prohibiting the usage of Diclofenac, the vultures are still reeling from the effects- four out of the five species of vultures native to Asia are still critically endangered today. Fortunately, breeding schemes have been in place for some time, bringing hope to these vultures.

Vultures are often viewed as greedy and malicious, however they are nature’s best cleaners due to their role in preventing the spread of diseases by eating carcasses. Conservation groups are endeavouring to raise awareness about these animals and their role in the ecosystem, and public opinion will hopefully sway in their favour. 

Temminck’s Pangolin

This is arguably the most threatened animal in the ‘Forgotten Five’. All eight species of pangolin are characterised as the world’s most trafficked mammal. Distributed between Asia and Africa, the four species from Asia are at greater risk of extinction, being listed from ‘endangered’ to ‘critically endangered’. Rising demand for pangolin parts has led poachers to turn their attention from Asian pangolins to their African counterparts– the Temminck’s pangolin residing in southern Africa, and its three African cousins spread around central Africa. In the past ten years, the total number of pangolins trafficked is potentially up to a million. This is compounded by their slow reproduction rate of one offspring a year.

China and Vietnam have been identified as the main drivers of demand for the poaching of the pangolin’s body parts, particularly their scales. It is believed in some Asian countries that the scales have healing properties capable of curing a range of ailments, from asthma to cancer. And like the Cape vulture, pangolin meat is revered in some cultures for having mystical properties. Some African cultures respectfully refer to the pangolin as the “ghost animal”, but some communities in East Africa burn pangolins to ward off lions. To curb the practice, REST proposes a solution whereby village heads are invited to meet with the organisation to observe rescued pangolins and to take pictures with them, as the villagers see more power in the photograph than the meat. Much more needs to be done for pangolins, and numerous organisations are working tirelessly to achieve that, one of them being the African Pangolin Working Group (APWG). Dedicated to rescuing the four African pangolin species, one aspect of their work involves training canines to recognise the scent of pangolins to aid their rescues.

Damara Dik-Dik

Dik-diks are essentially mini-antelopes and they get their name from the ‘zik-zik’ cry they make when faced with danger. There are four species of dik-diks in the world, each residing throughout Africa. The Damara dik-dik, also known as Kirk’s dik-dik, is the largest, but still only growing to be 40 centimetres tall. Their size means that they have plenty of predators to watch out for; hiding is their primary survival tactic. Threats they face include poaching, and their bones and hide are made into accessories and gloves. They are also affected by the expansion of human development into their habitats. However, Like Salt’s dik-dik and Gunther’s dik-dik, the population of Damara dik-diks remains stable.

Anchieta’s Dwarf Python

The most elusive of the ‘Forgotten Five’. While not much is known about this snake, it can be found in southern Angola and Namibia and is threatened mainly by the traditional medicine trade as well as the illegal wildlife trade. Experts believe that it could end up being heavily hunted, but greater awareness on this species could prevent that. 

Spotted Rubber Frog

Frogs all over the world are dying from the fungal disease Chytridiomycosis. Research has shown that since 1965, 90 species of amphibians have gone extinct due to the deadly pathogen. Those most affected are in Central and South America and Australia, although those in other regions such as Africa will not be much better off should the disease continue to spread unbridled, which can be exacerbated by the wildlife trade. The extensive flows of movement involved provide a plethora of opportunities for the spread of disease vectors not only between species but also between far-flung geographical regions, making the eradication of the disease much more difficult. REST’s focus on spotted rubber frogs will give them a fighting chance, however small, against the insidious disease.

While improved public awareness of these ‘Forgotten Five’ species and their declining populations will no doubt help in efforts to ensure their conservation, it is imperative that man-made actions, such as poaching, are regulated on a government level. 

Featured image by: Yathin S Krishnappa

Pangolins are the world’s most trafficked mammals, but they remain relatively unknown; for most, the thought of wildlife crime instead brings to mind ivory and rhino horns. 

An animal ranging from the size of a common house cat to a medium-sized dog, but covered in hundreds of scales and found only in Asia and Sub-Saharan Africa, their defence of rolling up into a ball of hardy scales is aptly designed for protection against their natural predators- big cats. But this defence mechanism is far from a deterrent for humans. All eight species of pangolins are at risk of extinction, driven by the thriving illegal trade of its scales and meat used in traditional Asian medicine and dishes.

The illegal wildlife trade has popular trafficking routes that span across the globe, many of which use Hong Kong as an entry point into China. In the four-year period between 2013-2017, the Hong Kong Customs and Excise Department found over 43 metric tonnes of pangolin scales and carcasses. The seizure is estimated to represent 96,330 pangolins at an estimated market value of HK$93.9 million.

All pangolin species have been legally protected by an international agreement between governments in 2016 as part of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES), aiming to ensure the trade of the animal doesn’t threaten its survival.

Despite the ban, the latest seizure in January 2019 by the Hong Kong authorities was record high with over eight tonnes of pangolin scales and two tonnes of elephant tusks discovered in the same shipping container, with an estimated combined market value of about HK$62 million.

Why are pangolins trafficked?

Associate Professor at Hong Kong University (HKU) Amanda Whitfort explains that all eight species of pangolin are in high demand for traditional Chinese medicine in China. “Hong Kong is the fifth busiest container port in the world and only about 1% of our containers are inspected. Given the low risk of detection it is not surprising that we are used by traffickers seeking an easy gateway to China.”

Currently, wildlife trafficking offences are listed under legislation aimed to protect endangered species of animals and plants in Hong Kong: Cap.586. However, many have pushed for it to be now listed as under the Organised and Serious Crime Ordinance (OSCO). Whitfort says that this legislation change would allow investigators to use more coercive powers when investigating wildlife crime operations.

Alexandra Andersson, founder of the conservation group Hong Kong for Pangolins, also stresses the importance of listing wildlife offences under OSCO, saying that the Hong Kong government needs to “increase associated penalties, close various loopholes in the law, and work with forensic scientists to develop tools to detect laundering.”

In traditional Chinese medicine, some practitioners prescribe pangolin scales to cure ailments from rheumatism, soreness and itchiness to cancer and impotence. However, activists like Andersson argue that scales are proven to be made of keratin, the substance of human fingernails.

In 2008 a global NGO focused on illegal wildlife trade, TRAFFIC, found that pangolin scale alternatives include Wang Bu Lui Xing (Vaccaraie semen) and dried seeds of cowherb (Vaccaria segetalis). Within the study it was found that the medicinal effects of both alternatives were classed as being equally as effective as pangolin scales.

Whitfort says that many traditional Chinese medicine practitioners publicly support the use of alternatives to endangered species, though it is evident that pangolin products are still in high demand both for its scales and its meat. “No species should go extinct for traditional Chinese medicine,” says Whitfort.

pangolin: most trafficked mammal in the world
Hong Kong customs seize a large shipment of Pangolin Scales transiting via the port city destined to the Chinese market. By Alex Hofford for WildAid

Alarmingly, there is a substantial lack of both knowledge and awareness regarding the pangolin and its legality. A survey of 1000 Hong Kong residents completed by Hong Kong for Pangolins, the Humane Society International and HKU found that 27.1% of the residents surveyed did not know if it was legal to consume pangolin meat or believed it was legal (it is illegal), and nearly half of those surveyed were confused about the legality of the pangolin scale consumption.

In a separate study WildAid also discovered that in China pangolin meat was largely consumed because it is a “expensive status symbol” and an “exotic wild animal”, even though 74% of respondents believed consuming pangolin meat is illegal.

The steep decline in global pangolin numbers has led to some scientists advocating for the captive breeding of pangolins, but studies shows they are not suited to living in captivity, with most wild individuals dying within 200 days. The Kadoorie Farm & Botanic Garden (KFBG) in Hong Kong undertakes species conservation and ecosystem restoration, in doing so they cared for a small number of pangolins before successfully releasing them back into the wild in Hong Kong.

KFBG believes that Hong Kong is in a position to play a critical role in the conservation of pangolins globally saying “the role our territory plays as a smuggling route used to funnel globally poached pangolin products to the main consumers is significant. Clamping down on illegal pangolin smuggling in Hong Kong could have a global scale effect.”

Pressure to curb illegal wildlife trade  is growing fast. Academics and activists alike say that Hong Kong’s wildlife offences need to be moved from Cap.586 to OSCO if legislation and enforcement mechanisms are to be made more effective in combating  illegal pangolin trade.

“Eventually we will have the correct laws,” Whitfort says. “Unfortunately, for some species, those laws will come too late.”

Featured photo by sk8mama/ Flickr (Licence)

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