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