Cross-border investigation: Pangolin poaching in Africa and trafficking to Asia
February 17 marked World Pangolin Day. The day is meant to draw attention to the plight of the pangolin, the most trafficked animal in the world. One trafficking hotspot is Cameroon. By the AFRICA-CHINA REPORTING PROJECT, HK01 and ANU NKEZE PAUL.
This is an edited version of a feature originally published in Green Echoes (Cameroon)
Pangolins are being hunted and killed in vast numbers. The animal’s meat is considered a culinary delicacy in Asia and its scales are used in traditional Chinese medicine.
In 2017, the Africa-China Reporting Project collaborated with HK01, a Hong Kong news agency, and Anu Nkeze Paul, an environmental journalist in Cameroon, to investigate both the African supply side and the Asian demand side of the illegal trade in pangolin products.
The result of these international investigations illustrated how pangolins are being hunted to extinction in Africa. Their scales are transported from African villages to cities, after which Chinese middlemen ship them to Asia via an elaborate criminal smuggling network that passes through Hong Kong, Singapore, South Korea, and Mainland China.
Watch: Pangolin smuggling route – from Africa to Asia
* English subtitles start at 00:26
Cameroon is a significant case study in how the problem of pangolin trafficking can be better managed. The government of Cameroon is legitimately concerned about the high incidence of pangolin poaching in the communities. But even though there are gaps in implementing stringent environmental rules or reluctance to enforce them, the important question for government is no longer when environmental concerns should influence the illicit trade of pangolins, but how.
The illegal poaching and trafficking of pangolins in Cameroon highlights challenges in implementing the law, but also how sustainable livelihood programmes and active engagement with communities may inhibit illegal poaching of pangolins.
There are three types of pangolins: the giant, long tail and tree climbing species. They feed on termites and ants, and produce offspring twice a year. Pangolins live inside dead palms and trees, and mostly move around at night to search for food.
Pangolin scales are a culinary delicacy and in high demand in Asian markets. As a result, pangolin poaching in Cameroon has increased to alarming proportions, with an estimated 2.7-million pangolins poached in the forests of Cameroon annually; it is estimated that the number of pangolins poached is increasing by 150% every year.
Watch: Pangolin smuggling for Chinese restaurants and medicines
Recent observations indicate that the supply of pangolins in the market has fallen sharply in recent years, yet apart from a dwindling pangolin population, some suggestions for this decline in the market points to the possible use of alternative supply chain routes or channels by poachers. Nevertheless, the price of giant (Smutsia gigantea) and arboreal (Phataginus sp) pangolins in urban markets has increased more than 2.3-fold.
If not controlled, the rapid poaching of pangolins in four key regions of Cameroon could lead to the complete extermination and extinction of these endangered species.
A ministerial order (No 007/LC/MINFOF/DFAP/DVEF) of 11 January 2017 restricts poaching, commercialisation and exportation of pangolins. But investigations in some villages of Makar, Esuikutan, Bakoko, Matamani, Meka and Besingi in Ndian Division in the South-west Region revealed that the poor implementation of laws is allowing for worsening of the pangolins’ plight, with inhabitants of Korup National Park expressing concern.
The pangolin trade is complicated because the meat is eaten locally while the scales are exported to Asian markets, notably to Hong Kong, China and Malaysia.
Photo: Dried Pangolin ready for sale at a market.
A resident of Mayenmen town in Kupe Muangouba Division confirmed that most of the scales are transported to Nigeria before transfer to Asian markets. He further revealed that many involved in the buying of the scales in this part of the country are Nigerians who bribe the eco-guards with as much as US$200.
The pangolin trade is most beneficial to those who buy the scales, and corrupt guard officials at control points.
Of the three different well-known species of pangolin, giant, long tail and tree pangolins, giant pangolins have all but become extinct following the expansion in population growth, urban and rural settlement sprawl, agricultural activities and increased numbers of poachers. The most common species still in existence are the long tail and tree climbing pangolins.
According to Chief Ekokola Adolf Nwese of Esuikutan Bakoko village in Korup National Park, pangolins were once easy to poach. “With just a touch, it was enough to get it to surrender,” he said. Earlier, poaching of pangolins was by hand. But the scarcity of the giant pangolin disturbs him. “(It) is because hunters and poachers are no longer respecting traditional hunting rules,” Ekolola said.
Pangolin scales used to be thrown away after the animal was killed until Asians started buying them a few years ago, Ekolola said.
Adonis Ambui, leader of a group of pangolin poachers with more than 15 years of experience in Mundemba, says strategies employed by government and wildlife conservationists – aimed at halting hunting or poaching of class A animals, including pangolins – have failed because the poachers have no other means of earning a livelihood. “If poaching has to stop, there is a need to train poachers with specialised skills like being a mechanic or doing computer and television repairs,” Ambui said.
Eric Kaba Tah, an official working with the international NGO Last Great Ape (LAGA), argues that government should be doing more to reduce the current poaching rate, as the trade is being influenced by unemployment and income poverty.
The laws in place are largely ignored and the trafficking network is very complex because most transactions are conducted through multiple sophisticated communication routes, making it more complex.
Lekealem Joseph, Director of Wildlife and Protected Areas in Cameroon’s Ministry of Forestry and Wildlife, affirms that the government intends to be more active, mostly in markets in urban centres. “Government should do more seizures, destruction and arrests with harder jail terms for those who violate the law. The national brigade is currently strategising on how to track and monitor most pangolin sales points on a permanent basis,” he says.
Meanwhile, however, trade is expanding. Many Cameroonians are involved in the collection of scales in rural areas. The two major cities are Yaoundé and Douala, where the major exports to foreign markets, notably in Asia, takes place.
In the East Region, trading in pangolins is mostly conducted between poachers and women who operate local restaurants. Most of the women spoken to admitted that the demand for pangolins is very high because they are considered a tasty delicacy. However, very few had any knowledge about the trade in scales except to say that certain people come around from time to time to buy them. They actually don’t know what is done with the animals.
After the meat and scales are separated, the scales are washed and dried in the sun for about a week. They are then preserved in a warm place for local buyers who come around to buy them. Because of the recent increase in the number of pangolin scales available for sale, the price has steadily increased. Many people are now getting into the pangolin business because it’s very profitable. The demand is higher for the scales than for the meat itself.
In the South Region, pangolins are considered special and only eaten by wealthy people. The cost is relatively high here compared to other regions. The trade in meat and scales is not yet popular. Some people still throw away the scales and eat only the meat.
Most of the people spoken to here affirmed that pangolins are becoming scarce in the market. Poachers only bring them from time to time. However, this is partly because poachers prefer to take their products to Yaoundé directly, as it is a more profitable market where people are ready to pay any price.
In the Central Region the agents who buy from rural zones and then bring the products to the city play a powerful role. Many agents buy from poachers in rural areas to supply customers in urban centres, including Chinese business people who eventually export them out of the country.
Many of the agents interviewed affirmed that the transactions are complex because of the risks of seizures by eco-guards. They admit, however, that selling live pangolins is more profitable than selling dead ones.
Many local agents before the year 2000 did not know the importance of pangolin scales, and used to throw them away. However, the story is different today; they keep them for agents who come around to buy once the quantity is reasonable. Our investigation revealed that the main assembly points are Yaoundé and Douala where Chinese business people buy and package pangolin products for shipment to international markets in Asia.
The fight against the trafficking of pangolin scales was launched by Cameroon’s Ministry of Forestry and Wildlife (MINFOF) and gained momentum with the arrest of two Chinese men who were caught at Douala International airport with 5kg of pangolin scales on 20 January 2017. The two smugglers, Yao Baolong and Chen Peng, were operating as businessmen in Douala before their arrest.
The two Chinese nationals were arrested and jailed for six months in New Bell Prison and each fined CFA 13 million ($24,274). The success of these operations was thanks to the collective action of customs, eco-guards and the police.
During police questioning, the two men confirmed they had been operating the business alongside Cameroonians who buy the scales in rural areas, notably the East, Centre, South and South-west Regions. According to reliable information from the immigration police, Yao Baolong and Chen Peng left Cameroon immediately after they were released from New Bell Prison in July 2017.
Many other underground agents have also been caught with contact numbers of their counterparts and syndicates in Asia as evidence of trading with partners in that part of the world.
According to Ministerial circular No 0007/LC/MINFOF/DFAF/SVEF of 11 January 2017, a ban has been placed on the poaching, commercialisation and exportation of pangolins and pangolin scales. The pangolin is now classified under class A animals and considered as an endangered species totally protected because of the risk of extinction.
However, enforcement and population monitoring remain a challenge and norms on subsistence hunting are seldom respected. The sale of pangolin products is carried out daily.
Much of the poaching in the four regions of Cameroon discussed here occurs in rural communities. Income poverty, youth unemployment, high demand from foreign buyers and lack of environmental education all play a role.
There is also a lack of agrarian livelihood intervention and reform by government, and corruption among law enforcement officers. Weak and inefficient implementation of the law exacerbates the problem.
Like many other African countries, Cameroon does not consider environmental preservation as a priority because its people have their own ,more pressing developmental priorities. In recent years Cameroon has experienced rapid growth in population as well. The conflict between trade and environmental degradation will likely not disappear any time soon.
If the pangolin trade is to reduce long-term, Cameroon’s government should increase support for agrarian livelihood programmes, including for crop production and livestock raising. Skills development programmes must be driven, as well as access to credit and financial services; and enterprise development promoted. Communities must be actively engaged in public-private partnerships that will benefit them long term. Education and training programmes must be implemented that will improve prospects.
Mechanisms for effective monitoring and implementation of the law must be improved, and harsh penalties introduced for corruption amongst law enforcement officers.
Until a range of such measures are introduced, the pangolin can expect to remain the most trafficked animal in the world. DM
This article has been edited for clarity and brevity
- On volunteers in Mainland China and HK fighting against pangolin smuggling;
- On sales and low prosecutions to pangolin smuggling;
- On pangolin smuggling routes;
- On pangolin smuggling for Chinese restaurants and medicines;
- Full reporters notes on investigations.
Photo: A male pangolin in its enclosure at Phnom Tamao Wildlife Rescue Center in Takeo province, Cambodia, 20 February 2016. The world marks the annual Pangolin Day on 20 February to raise awareness for pangolin conservation, as they estimated that every year about 10,000 pangolins are trafficked. EPA/MAK REMISSA