Deadly crav­ings

The huge ap­petite for pan­golins is wip­ing out these unique anteaters from the wilds.

The Star Malaysia - Star2 - - FRONT PAGE - By TAN CHENG LI star2­green@thes­

WHEN un­der threat, the pan­golin curls up into a tight ball to pro­tect it­self. It is a highly evolved de­fence mech­a­nism that has suc­cess­fully fended off attacks from large wild cats and sun bears. But this scaly ar­mour of­fers lit­tle pro­tec­tion when it comes to one preda­tor, man, who can eas­ily pick up the live ball and stuff it into a bag.

Catch­ing pan­golins re­quires no spe­cial skills; any­body who man­ages to lo­cate a pan­golin can eas­ily cap­ture it with­out the use of a weapon or trap. And that has proven to be the an­i­mal’s un­do­ing. Fu­elled by the vo­ra­cious de­mand for pan­golin meat and scales, mostly from con­sumers in China, pan­golins are be­ing wiped out from its na­tive habi­tats in South-East Asia.

The mas­sive scale of the il­le­gal trade in the docile, tooth­less an­i­mal was re­vealed fol­low­ing an anal­y­sis of log­books seized in Fe­bru­ary by Sabah Wildlife Depart­ment (SWD) from a traf­ficker’s premises in Kota Kinabalu. The records re­vealed that an as­ton­ish­ing 22,000 pan­golins and over 834kg of pan­golin scales were traded in Sabah over a 14month pe­riod.

The SWD had given Traf­fic, the wildlife trade mon­i­tor­ing body, ac­cess to the log­books, which de­tailed the vol­ume, weight, source and prices of pan­golins pur­chased by the syn­di­cate be­tween May 2007 and Jan­uary 2009. The find­ings are de­tailed in the re­port, A Pre­lim­i­nary As­sess­ment Of Pan­golin Trade In Sabah.

The an­i­mals had been sourced from Kota Kinabalu, Keningau, Kota Be­lud, Kota Marudu, Ranau, Tawau, Tam­paruli, San­dakan, Sip­i­tang, Pa­par and Beau­fort. The log­books showed that the dealer paid around RM115 per kg for pan­golins and RM180 per kg for pan­golin scales. This means a pan­golin av­er­ag­ing around 5kg in weight would have fetched the poacher or mid­dle­man a lu­cra­tive RM575. Based on these prices and data in the log­books, the syn­di­cate would have spent around RM571,214 per month to pur­chase trapped pan­golins.

“The de­tailed record-tak­ing by this crim­i­nal syn­di­cate has given us a unique in­sight into the vol­ume of en­dan­gered pan­golins be­ing il­le­gally traded in the re­gion,” says Noorainie Awang Anak, se­nior pro­gramme of­fi­cer with Traf­fic South-East Asia, who wrote the re­port with San­drine Pattel.

She points out, how­ever, that the num­bers could be even higher as no log­books were re­cov­ered for the pe­riod from Au­gust 2007 to Fe­bru­ary 2008 and for June 2008. Whether this is be­cause the books were missing or be­cause there was no smug­gling dur­ing the pe­riod is not known.

In de­cline

Pan­golins play an eco­log­i­cal role in the wild. As nat­u­ral con­trollers of ter­mites and ants, they save us mil­lions of dol­lars a year in pest de­struc­tion. There are eight species of pan­golin world­wide. Four are found in Asia: the thick-tailed pan­golin ( Manis­cras­si­cau data), Philip­pine pan­golin ( M.culio­nen­sis), Chi­nese pan­golin ( M.pen­tadactyla) and Sunda pan­golin ( M.ja­van­ica). Malaysia hosts only one species, the Sunda or Malayan pan­golin.

The Sunda pan­golin, found in much of South-East Asia, is pro­tected un­der Malaysian law. No in­ter­na­tional trade in any Asian pan­golin species is per­mit­ted un­der the Con­ven­tion on In­ter­na­tional Trade in En­dan­gered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (Cites).

De­spite this, pan­golins are widely hunted and traf­ficked for their al­leged medic­i­nal prop­er­ties. South-East Asia has a long his­tory of con­sump­tion of pan­golins. There were re­ports of Java send­ing pan­golins to China even way back in 1925.

Asian pan­golins are cur­rently col­lected and traded at an alarm­ing rate through­out their range to meet the de­mand from con­sumers in China, who con­sider the meat a del­i­cacy and use the scales as tra­di­tional cures for asthma, back­ache and arthri­tis. Cur­rently, all pan­golins in il­le­gal trade are wild-sourced as they can­not be cap­tive-bred on a com­mer­cial scale.

As few stud­ies have been car­ried out on the species, lit­tle is known about its dis­tri­bu­tion and pop­u­la­tion. But be­cause of their low reproduction rate – fe­males gen­er­ally give birth to only one off­spring per year – and over-hunt­ing, sci­en­tists be­lieve pan­golins are at high risk of ex­tinc­tion. Ac­cord­ing to the In­ter­na­tional Union for the Con­ser­va­tion of Na­ture (IUCN), num­bers of wild Sunda pan­golins have halved in the past 15 years.

The Sunda pan­golin was added to the IUCN Red List of Threat­ened Species in 1996 un­der the cat­e­gory

of “lower risk/near threat­ened”. As their num­bers con­tinue to de­cline, the species was pushed to the “en­dan­gered” cat­e­gory in 2008.

Pre­vi­ous stud­ies by Traf­fic stated that as pop­u­la­tions of the Sunda and the Chi­nese pan­golin are de­pleted in In­dochina, deal­ers are now sourc­ing the an­i­mals from their last re­main­ing strongholds in this re­gion: In­done­sia and Malaysia. It also found that the pan­golin trade had spread to Sabah and Sarawak due to a de­cline of pan­golin pop­u­la­tion in Penin­su­lar Malaysia. Re­cent seizures in China in­di­cate that pan­golins are be­ing sourced from African coun­tries.

The new re­port from Traf­fic in­cluded re­sults of a sur­vey of 13 pan­golin hunters from the west coast of Sabah, who gave in­ter­est­ing in­sight into the il­le­gal trade. Some have been poach­ing pan­golins for al­most 10 years.

The hunters are aware of the il­le­gal­ity of hunt­ing pan­golins, and that the an­i­mal could be­come ex­tinct due to hunt­ing and for­est clear­ance. But one hunter ad­mit­ted that the lu­cra­tive price made it dif­fi­cult to stop hunt­ing.

The hunters re­vealed that the in­creased de­mand and scarcity of an­i­mals have pushed prices up. They sell their catch to mid­dle­men, re­ceiv­ing be­tween RM50 and RM95 per kg for pan­golins and RM150 and RM180 for the scales. One hunter said ju­ve­nile pan­golins are pre­ferred, es­pe­cially new­borns or foe­tuses, which can fetch up to RM2,000 each. In Penin­su­lar Malay­isa, prices of live pan­golins range from RM30 to RM330 per kg, depend­ing on sea­son and lo­ca­tion. The hunters also ad­mit­ted to trap­ping other wildlife such as deer, slow loris, fresh­wa­ter tur­tles (mainly South-East Asian box tur­tle), mousedeer and wild boar.

Polic­ing ef­forts

Pan­golins are shipped frozen from Su­ma­tra to China and Viet­nam but in Penin­su­lar Malaysia, they are gen­er­ally trans­ported alive by land through Thai­land to China. The re­port says the trans­porta­tion of live pan­golins takes place un­der in­hu­mane con­di­tions, with the an­i­mals kept in tightly wrapped bags. When the an­i­mals are con­fis­cated by au­thor­i­ties, they are weak and in poor con­di­tion. The sub­se­quent re­lease of con­fis­cated an­i­mals is usu­ally done with­out plan­ning or mon­i­tor­ing, so chances of sur­vival are low.

Traf­fic says the key to tack­ling the pan­golin cri­sis is bet­ter en­force­ment and mon­i­tor­ing of the il­le­gal trade. There have been suc­cess­ful prose­cu­tions in all 19 pan­golin-re­lated seizures car­ried out be­tween 2002 and 2008 in Sabah. The biggest case in­volved the seizure of a con­tainer lorry car­ry­ing 100 poly­styrene boxes filled with 530 frozen pan­golins. The two men ar­rested in this case were each sen­tenced to six months’ jail and a fine of RM9,000.

“The pan­golin smug­gling cri­sis can only be ad­dressed through im­proved law en­force­ment and bet­ter in­for­ma­tion on the crim­i­nal syn­di­cates be­hind the trade,” said Noorainie. “Any­one with in­for­ma­tion on those be­hind these crimes against Malaya­sia’s nat­u­ral her­itage should pass it on to the rel­e­vant au­thor­i­ties for ac­tion.” How­ever, en­force­ment ef­forts are now stymied by a lack of fund­ing, ca­pac­ity and staffing. For ex­am­ple, the au­thors were in­formed that pa­trol boats re­mained in har­bour as there was no money for fuel. Short-handed, the depart­ment found it dif­fi­cult to pa­trol the whole of Sabah. More­over, wildlife crim­i­nal syn­di­cates are al­ready well de­vel­oped and can be dan­ger­ous.

The au­thors of the re­port also stressed the need for more in­for­ma­tion on hunt­ing habits, lo­cal mar­kets and links to the in­ter­na­tional trade. They urged for ed­u­ca­tional and aware­ness-rais­ing cam­paigns to com­ple­ment law en­force­ment ef­forts. For in­stance, lo­cal com­mu­ni­ties should be taught about the role of pan­golins in the ecosys­tem and the threats they face, and could be roped in to re­port wildlife crimes.

– Photo by Ron­nie Chin/The Star

Sought-af­ter: This baby pan­golin was among the 41 live and 26 frozen pan­golins seized by wildlife au­thor­i­ties in But­ter­worth, Pe­nang, in April. The an­i­mal’s scaly ar­mour of­fers no pro­tec­tion from its worst en­emy – man.

Eaten to ex­tinc­tion: A wildlife en­force­ment of­fi­cial show­ing frozen pan­golins – from a cache of 41 live and 26 frozen an­i­mals – seized from a house in Jalan Raja Uda, But­ter­worth, Pe­nang, in April.

Born to be hunted: A one-day-old baby pan­golin seek­ing refuge with its mother. Though to­tally pro­tected, pan­golins con­tinue to be poached to feed a lu­cra­tive mar­ket.

(Pic right) Prized for their meat and scales, the Sunda pan­golin is be­ing hunted to ex­tinc­tion. – Pic by Stephen Hogg

Pan­golins have evolved their scales to pro­tect them­selves from preda­tors but the scales are now con­tribut­ing to the species’ de­cline as they are a highly sought-af­ter folk rem­edy.

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