Millions of traded pangolins slaughtered in Africa
Activists are suffering violent deaths at the rate of around four a week
The true scale of the slaughter of pangolins in Africa has been disclosed by new research showing that millions of the mammals are killed each year.
The pangolin was already known to be the world’s most trafficked wild mammal, with at least a million traded in the last decade to supply the demand for its meat and scales in Asian markets. Populations of Asian pangolins have been decimated, leaving the creatures highly endangered and sharply shifting the focus of exploitation to Africa’s four species.
Pangolins are secretive and nocturnal, and some species live in trees, making them hard to count. But while the size of the populations in Africa is unknown, the new analysis, based on data collected by hundreds of local researchers at hunting sites and bushmeat markets across central and west Africa, found up to 2.7 million are being slaughtered every year.
“The number is shocking,” said Daniel Ingram at Sussex University, who led the research team. “Pangolins have been hunted out of many areas in Asia, and recent analyses show there is a growing international trade between Africa and Asia. If we don’t act now to better understand and protectt these charismatic animals, als, we may lose them.”
Pangolins s curl into scaly balls s when threatened, which deters naturaltural predators suchuch as lions but is no defencee against hu- man hunters.ers. The researchers found half the animals had been snared or trapped, despite wire snares being illegal in most of the 14 central African nations analysed in the research. The analysis, published in the journal Conservation Letters, also found that almost half of the pangolins killed were juveniles, a sign that the p populationsp are beingg dangerously overexploited as animals are being caughtcaug before they can rep reproduce. This is part particularly harmfu ful, as pangolins p produce only one pup every y year or two. The study also found h hunting of African pan pangolins in 2014 was 150% higher than in the 1970s. Ric Richard Thomas, of the wildlife trade-monitoring network Traffic, noted the remarkable frequency of major pangolin seizures. In June, Malaysian authorities seized three big shipments of pangolin scales, each from Africa and representing many thousands of animals.
A ban on the international trade in any pangolin species was passed by the Convention on the International Trade in Endangered Species in 2016. But Ingram said enforcement of laws had to be stepped up to prevent African pangolins heading for extinction.
The Asian demand for pangolin meat and scales as delicacies and their supposed medicinal uses are a major factor in trade but many African pangolins are eaten locally. Ingram said measures were needed to develop alternative livelihoods for hunters.
Last year was the most perilous ever for people defending their community’s land, natural resources or wildlife, with research showing environmental defenders are being killed at the rate of almost four a week across the world.
Two hundred environmental activists, wildlife rangers and indigenous leaders trying to protect their land were killed in 2016, according to the watchdog group Global Witness, more than double the number killed five years ago. And the frequency is only increasing as 2017 ticks by, according to data provided exclusively to the Guardian, with 98 killings identified in the first five months of this year.
John Knox, the UN special rapporteur on human rights and the environment, said: “Human rights are being jettisoned as a culture of impunity is developing. There is now an overwhelming incentive to wreck the environment for economic reasons. The people most at risk are people who are already marginalised and excluded from politics and judicial redress, and are dependent on the environment. The countries do not respect the rule of law. Everywhere in the world, defenders are facing threats.
“There is an epidemic now, a culture of impunity, a sense anyone can kill environmental defenders without repercussions, eliminate anyone who stands in the way. It [comes from] mining, agribusiness, illegal logging and dam building.”
A Mexican indigenous leader and opponent of illegal logging, Isidro Baldenegro López, was killed in January. In May, farmers in Brazil’s Maranhão state attacked an indigenous settlement, hacking at hands with machetes, in a land conflict that left more than a dozen in hospital.
There have also been killings of environmental defenders and attacks on others in Colombia, Honduras, Mexico and elsewhere this year. Most defenders die in remote forests or villages. Many of the killers are reportedly hired by corporations or state forces; few are ever arrested or identified.
The Guardian has launched a project in collaboration with Global Witness to attempt to record the deaths of everyone killed over the next year in defence of the environment. The project will report from the world’s last wildernesses, as well as from the most industrialised countries on the planet, on the work of environmental defenders and the assaults upon them.
Billy Kyte, campaign leader on the issue at Global Witness, said the killings on the list were only part of an epidemic of violence: “Communities that take a stand against environmental destruction are now in the firing line of companies’ private security guards, state forces and contract killers. For every land and environmental defender who is killed, many more are threatened with death, eviction and destruction of their resources.
“These are not isolated incidents. They are symptomatic of a systematic assault on remote and indigenous communities by state and corporate actors.”
The number of environmental conflicts around the world is growing, and they are becoming more intense, say researchers. An EU-funded atlas of environmental conflict reported by academics at 23 universities has identified more than 2,000, over water and land, and including pollution, evictions and mining.
“These are just the reported [incidents]. There could be three times as many. There is much more violence now,” said Bobby Banerjee, a Cass Business School researcher who has studied resistance to global development projects for 15 years.
“The conflicts are happening worldwide now because of globalisation. Capitalism is violent and global corporations are looking to poor countries for access to land and resources. Poor countries are more corruptible and have weaker law enforcement. Companies and governments now work together to kill people,” he said.
The 2016 Global Witness data shows that the industries at the heart of conflict were mining and oil, which were linked to 33 killings. Logging was in second place worldwide – with 23 deaths, up from 15 the previous year – followed by agriculture. That ranking could change. In the first five months of this year, the most striking trend is that for the first time agribusiness is rivalling mining as the deadliest sector, with 22 deaths worldwide, just one short of the total for the whole of last year.
The situation in Colombia in particular has worsened in 2017. Brazil and the Philippines are also on course to record higher death tolls, and indigenous groups continue to suffer disproportionately.
In terms of country rankings, in 2016 Brazil was once again the deadliest country, with 49 killings, many of them in the Amazon rainforest. Timber production was implicated in 16 cases as the country’s deforestation rate surged by 29%. Latin America remained the most dangerous region, accounting for 60 of the global total of killings of environmental defenders, even though it is home to less than a 10th of the world’s population.
With sizeable economic interests at stake, state security forces were behind at least 43 killings globally – 33 by the police and 10 by the military – while privately hired hands including security guards and hitmen were responsible for 52 deaths.
Laura Cáceres is one of the daughters of Berta Cáceres, leader of the Lenca people – an indigenous tribe in Honduras – who was murdered in
2016 after resisting the Agua Zarca hydroelectric dam on the Gualcarque river. Now in exile following death threats, Laura was recently in Oxford at a conference organised by Not One More, a group founded in 2016 in response to the violence facing environmental defenders.
“Berta Cáceres was a hindrance to the system,” she said. “[Honduras] is so battered; 30% of the land has been granted to transnational corporations. Companies are taking over ancestral territories. Forests are being privatised. My mother was passionate about her land, her roots, and was horrified by the sinister and violent forms with which imperialism acts.”
Shortly after the conference, the Guardian reported that another of Berta Cáceres’s children, Berta Zúñiga, had survived an armed attack soon after being named leader of the indigenous rights organisation formerly led by her mother.
“We are defenders of life,” said Laura. “We don’t want to lose our lives and lose our mamas and families. But we assume that risk. If they can murder someone with high recognition like my mother, Berta, then they can murder anyone.”
Remembered … a rally in memory of the Honduran activist Berta Cáceres and other women killed defending the environment