Econ­omy of scale

An in-depth global in­ves­ti­ga­tion into wildlife traf­fick­ing sent this writer in search of hunters and the hunted

Sunday Times - - Insight Conservation Classified - By RACHEL LOVE NUWER

In the West, the world’s eight species of pan­golins have var­i­ous names and nick­names — scaly anteaters, ar­ti­chokes with legs, walk­ing pine cones — but in Viet­nam, they’re known sim­ply as tê tê. They are the world’s only mam­mal with true scales, but their sec­ond and more re­cent claim to fame is as the world’s most highly traf­ficked mam­mal.

Yet, un­til re­cently, even some ecol­o­gists weren’t aware of the pan­golin’s ex­is­tence. The sit­u­a­tion has since im­proved vastly: th­ese days you’d be hard pressed to find a wildlife re­searcher who isn’t fa­mil­iar with the pan­golin’s plight, thanks to an in­creas­ing num­ber of sci­en­tific pa­pers and con­fer­ence talks warn­ing of their im­pend­ing doom.

Pan­golin — which has been il­le­gal to eat in China since 1989 — is still served there, al­though much less overtly than in Viet­nam. If caught, Chi­nese pan­go­lin­eat­ing pa­trons face up to 10 years in jail but, for some, the risk isn’t a de­ter­rent.

In Fe­bru­ary 2017, for ex­am­ple, a Shen­zhen woman dubbed by me­dia the “Pan­golin Princess” was brought in for ques­tion­ing af­ter so­cial me­dia users drew at­ten­tion to pho­tos of “pan­golin blood fried rice”, “eight an­i­mal stew” and “cater­pil­lar fun­gus and pan­golin soup” that she had posted on Weibo,

China’s ver­sion of Twit­ter. She bragged that the dishes were so nour­ish­ing they made her nose bleed.

Con­sumer so­ci­ety

The host­ess at the fancy Ho Chi Minh City restau­rant sat us at a street-fac­ing ta­ble and handed over mas­sive, leather-bound menus. Open­ing mine, I wanted to quickly paw through to see what kind of wildlife hor­rors might be ad­ver­tised, but I forced my­self to slowly sur­vey the op­tions like a nor­mal cus­tomer. I smiled va­cantly, glanc­ing over the all the usual sus­pects of chicken, pork, duck and beef, along with var­i­ous noo­dles and rice dishes. But then, with the turn of a page, I hit the mother lode.

In the very back, com­plete with pho­to­graphs, were sev­eral pages ad­ver­tis­ing a menagerie of wild an­i­mals. Fried bats were pic­tured next to the bony legs and rat-like tail of a roasted civet on a plat­ter adorned with greens; on the next page, a boiled pan­golin lay splayed on a plate in a mor­bid belly flop. Some pho­tos, rather than de­pict­ing pre­pared dishes, took the even less sub­tle ap­proach of dis­play­ing the ac­tual an­i­mal in ques­tion: a por­cu­pine, two grin­ning bears, a bright green lizard, a tur­tle, and more. My com­pan­ion trans­lated a few of the of­fer­ings, in­clud­ing pan­golin stewed with Chi­nese herbs, snake-meat sausage, fried tor­toise vis­cera, and bear paw cooked with gin­ger (24 hours’ no­tice re­quired).

I was dumb­founded. I hadn’t known what to ex­pect, but an il­lus­trated menu of il­le­gal prod­ucts handed out to any­one who walks through the door was def­i­nitely not it.

Quóc Trung, the restau­rant man­ager, told us: “Ex­otic meat is extremely pop­u­lar. Civets and pan­golins es­pe­cially. Tor­toises and snakes sell well, too. I think civet served with sticky rice is the most de­li­cious.”

When asked about the ex­or­bi­tant price for pan­golins, he ex­plained that it stems from the fact that they can­not be raised in cap­tiv­ity. “Ev­ery­one wants them,” he said. “But only high-class and spe­cial guests get to en­joy this an­i­mal.” “But why do peo­ple want pan­golin?” I prod­ded. “Peo­ple are will­ing to pay, not only be­cause the pan­golin’s meat is tasty, but also be­cause the pan­golin’s scales treat a lot of sick­nesses,” he con­fi­dently in­formed me. “The scales are good for the body. They can treat all sorts of things, like back or joint pains. Or if a woman is hav­ing trou­ble lac­tat­ing, she can take them to help her pro­duce milk.”

Judg­ing by his earnest tone, it did not seem like he was just mak­ing this stuff up to push his pan­golin prod­ucts. He be­lieved it — and cus­tomers ap­par­ently did, too. Those who or­der a pan­golin al­most al­ways want to keep their an­i­mal’s scales, he told us. The fee pa­trons pay for their pan­golin in­cludes re­mov­ing, dry­ing, and pack­ing the scales in a dog­gie bag.

Does the govern­ment al­low this?

“No,” Quóc smiled slyly. “But we have our sources. We get no prob­lems from the au­thor­i­ties be­cause we have good con­nec­tions with the po­lice. Al­though ev­ery­one knows it’s banned, we can still ad­ver­tise it and put the pic­tures in the menu — we don’t have to worry about any­thing. Any­way, the de­mand is so high for th­ese things, we have to sup­ply them.”

The lucky ones

Hu­mans are the great­est threat to pan­golins’ sur­vival, but they are also their great­est hope.

Nguyen Van Thái is ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor of Save Viet­nam’s Wildlife. Since found­ing the non­profit in 2014, Thái has be­come one of Viet­nam’s lead­ing voices for end­ing the il­le­gal wildlife trade, not the least be­cause he and his col­leagues run the coun­try’s only re­ha­bil­i­ta­tion fa­cil­i­ties for con­fis­cated pan­golins. Un­like An­i­mals Asia’s res­cued-bear sanc­tu­ar­ies, how­ever, re­lease back into the wild is al­ways the goal for crea­tures that find their way to Thái. He doesn’t have the space to keep the thou­sands of pan­golins that would even­tu­ally pile up, and they are no­to­ri­ously dif­fi­cult to keep alive in cap­tiv­ity. As op­posed to the bears, they’ve also not spent decades be­hind bars, mean­ing their chances of quickly read­just­ing to life in the wild are high. As of mid-2017, more than 400 re­ha­bil­i­tated pan­golins had been given a sec­ond shot at life in the wild, thanks to Thái and his col­leagues’ work.

In a cou­ple of days, Thái texted me, he would be re­turn­ing 46 res­cued an­i­mals to the for­est — the largest pan­golin re­lease un­der­taken to date.

“I am not sure if you have time to join us?”

I booked a ticket to cen­tral Viet­nam.

At the ranger sta­tion, Thái was busy tend­ing to the 46 pan­golins in his care, giv­ing them one last meal from the cooler be­fore the big event.

He lifted a crate lid, re­veal­ing two scaly brown balls nes­tled in a bed of hay. Slowly, one of the balls un­furled and out poked a long, pointed face with bulging blue­berry eyes; a wet, dog-like nose; and tiny, oddly hu­man ears. The pan­golin stuck its snout into the air, sniff­ing sleep­ily as Thái filled a small plas­tic tub with in­sect mush, which looked like a mix­ture of red and white quinoa. The pan­golins — now both awake — loved it. They buried their pink faces in the bowls like happy pup­pies.

Thái and his staff con­tin­ued their rounds, en­sur­ing that each crate was taken care of. As I watched them, I re­alised that pan­golins have very dis­tinct per­son­al­i­ties. Some were timid and quiv­er­ing; oth­ers were bold and cu­ri­ous, rear­ing up on their hind legs to sur­vey the world around them. A few even tried to in­sti­gate an es­cape. They all seemed gen­tle, how­ever: none at­tempted to bite, and, when han­dled, they did not even struggle. If any­thing, they wrapped their strong, slinky-like bod­ies around the staff, cling­ing to them like a tod­dler in its fa­ther’s arms.

The level of trust was shock­ing, con­sid­er­ing what th­ese pan­golins had been put through by hu­mans. Most of the an­i­mals be­ing re­leased were dis­cov­ered packed in boxes of ice in the back of a truck. Of the 61 con­fis­cated by the po­lice, 12 died from trauma and in­juries, and sev­eral more were still re­cov­er­ing back at the pan­go­lar­ium. The lucky 46 would be di­vided into three groups, Thái said, each of which would be taken to dif­fer­ent parts of the for­est so as to spread the pan­golin love and en­sure the soli­tary crea­tures had the best pos­si­ble start.

It was im­pos­si­ble to say what fate awaited the newly freed pan­golins. They might find them­selves once again trapped in a hunter’s snare, bound for one of the Ho Chi Minh City restau­rants I had vis­ited. Or luck might re­main on their side, and they would never see an­other hu­man again.

“If just one in­di­vid­ual sur­vives,” Thái said, “it’s a happy story.”

African slaugh­ter

Over the past decade, more than a mil­lion pan­golins have been killed in South­east Asia and China. Un­der this strain, it didn’t take long for the sup­ply to di­min­ish. The four species of Asian pan­golin are now listed as en­dan­gered to crit­i­cally en­dan­gered, and traders are look­ing far­ther afield. As Dan Chal­len­der, chair of the In­ter­na­tional Union for the Con­ser­va­tion of Na­ture’s Pan­golin Spe­cial­ist Group, put it: “China de­pleted its own pop­u­la­tion, then started to hoover up an­i­mals from other coun­tries.”

All four of Africa’s pan­golin species are now con­sid­ered threat­ened. A 2018 pa­per re­vealed that up to 2.7-mil­lion pan­golins are now killed an­nu­ally in Africa, pri­mar­ily to be traf­ficked to Asia.

✼This is an edited ex­tract from Poached: In­side the dark

world of wildlife traf­fick­ing, by Rachel Love Nuwer, pub­lished by Scribe, dis­trib­uted in SA by Jonathan Ball (R315)

Pic­ture: 123rf.com/Nico Smit

Tem­minck's pan­golin, or the ground pan­golin, found in SA.

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