World’s most traf­ficked

Con­ser­va­tion­ists in fight to save hum­ble anteater


B ecause of its dis­tinc­tive coat of hard shells, the pan­golin, or scaly anteater, has been called the world’s most heav­ily traf­ficked mam­mal. More than 1 mil­lion have been poached in the past decade, threat­en­ing the crea­ture with ex­tinc­tion, ac­cord­ing to the In­ter­na­tional Union for the Con­ser­va­tion of Na­ture.

Al­though a global wildlife sum­mit last week banned all trade of pan­golins, doubts re­main whether that will stop their il­le­gal traf­fic in Africa, fu­elled by grow­ing de­mand from Asian con­sumers, par­tic­u­larly in China.

Com­mer­cial trade is now for­bid­den in all eight pan­golin species, ac­cord­ing to de­ci­sions made at the con­fer­ence in Jo­han­nes­burg of the Con­ven­tion on Trade in En­dan­gered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES).

In Vietnam and some parts of China, pan­golin meat is con­sid­ered a del­i­cacy, while its scales of ker­atin, the pro­tein in fin­ger­nails and rhino horn, are widely used in tra­di­tional Chi­nese medicine. De­mand for the two prod­ucts is caus­ing ram­pant poach­ing that is dec­i­mat­ing the pan­golin pop­u­la­tion in East and Cen­tral Africa. The poach­ing dis­cov­ered in Uganda and other African coun­tries is only “the tip of the ice­berg”, said Anne-Marie Wee­den, gen­eral man­ager at the Uganda Con­ser­va­tion Foun­da­tion. Poverty and lack of con­ser­va­tion aware­ness en­cour­age poach­ing, as poor ru­ral peo­ple do not see value in pro­tect­ing an­i­mals that can be sold to traf­fick­ers for hun­dreds, even thou­sands, of dol­lars. “Peo­ple need to have a mean­ing­ful al­ter­na­tive source of in­come and have to ben­e­fit from the na­tional parks they live next door to,” Wee­den said. Traf­fick­ers from Kam­pala, Uganda’s cap­i­tal, usu­ally drive from vil­lage to vil­lage to get whole pan­golins or scales di­rectly from the lo­cals. The traf­fick­ers then sell them with a big­ger mar­gin to mid­dle­men in Kam­pala or di­rectly to Chi­nese buy­ers, who are con­nected to cor­rupt agents at air­ports and bor­der points who turn a blind eye to their ship­ment of scales.

Re­cently, poach­ers could sell 1kg of pan­golin scales for about $45 to a mid­dle­man, who in turn could sell it for much more, be­tween $73 and $100, to agents for Chi­nese buy­ers. Prices jump again once the scales reach Asia.

The scales ac­count for about 20 per cent of a pan­golin’s weight.

The il­le­gal trade of pan­golins is “boom­ing,” said Abel Ahabwe, head of in­ves­ti­ga­tions for the con­ser­va­tion net­work. “The prob­lem is get­ting worse. One day you are com­ing up with one way to catch them, but they keep chang­ing their meth­ods.”

In April, four men were caught try­ing to sell two live pan­golins in Uganda’s north­ern city of Kit­gum for about $15,000. One was a lo­cal po­lice­man, who was ac­quit­ted while the other three re­ceived a three-month prison sen­tence. Many traf­fick­ers are con­nected to the po­lice or mil­i­tary forces, Ahabwe said.

The Uganda Wildlife Au­thor­ity said it is aware of the prob­lem.

“We are mov­ing in the right di­rec­tion, with aware­ness, sen­si­ti­sa­tion, and we think we will be able to deal with this,” said Edgar Buhanga, its deputy direc­tor of plan­ning.

A new wildlife con­ser­va­tion law is be­ing con­sid­ered that will have stiffer penal­ties and prison sen­tences for traf­fick­ers.

EN­DAN­GERED: Pan­golins like th­ese are sought af­ter for their meat and (be­low inset) their scales. (Be­low right) A ranger looks for poach­ers.

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