‘We need to teach people about pangolins’ — lessons to learn from a study into live pangolin trade

“During these 24, 25-plus years as a chief, I have had the opportunity of receiving pangolins from the villages and we sent them back to the parks as we normally do. But in recent years, things have just turned upside down, hearing that pangolin is valuable.” a traditional authority told us.

“People say that the pangolin is worth a lot of money, but there is no market. Where is the market?”

In recent years, countries in southern Africa, including Malawi, Mozambique, Tanzania and Zambia, have noted that the majority of intercepted pangolin trafficking cases involved live animals. While trafficking of pangolin scales from Africa to Asia has been a topic of media attention and research, little is known about the live pangolin trade in Africa.

Commissioned by the Partnership Against Wildlife Crime in Africa and Asia, a global project implemented by The German Agency for International Co-operation (GIZ), EIA conducted a rapid review of legislation and policies, pangolin seizures and prosecution data, as well as a deep-dive field-scoping exercise in Malawi to better understand the live pangolin trade in that country as well as in Mozambique, Tanzania and Zambia.

EIA campaigners travelled to 19 locations in central and southern Malawi and interviewed 46 local individuals, including traditional healers, laypersons, traditional authorities and those convicted for involvement in the illegal live pangolin trade. The goal was to obtain a better understanding of the drivers, routes and consumer groups of live pangolin trade in Malawi.

Pangolins, locally known in Malawi as “ngaka”, play an important role in traditional culture and are believed by some to possess properties that provide protection against harm, enhance career success and predict the weather.

In the past, locals who came across a pangolin would bring the animal to their chiefs as a way to show respect and loyalty. The animal would then be released back in the wild. Pangolins are not considered a food by most Malawians, so laypersons would not have any use of a pangolin and would not hunt them.

However, things have changed.

Pangolin killed for bushmeat (c) African Pangolin Working Group

Dedicated efforts over the years by the Department of National Parks and Wildlife and conservation organisations such as the Lilongwe Wildlife Trust and African Parks successfully improved public awareness of wildlife crime in Malawi. As such, most interviewees were aware that the use or trade of pangolins and their parts and derivatives is illegal and could lead to significant jail terms upon conviction.

Remarkably, our interviews suggested that some local people interpreted the heavy penalties for pangolin-related offences as an indication of the animal’s value. This perception had also led people to stop bringing pangolins to chiefs for release back into the wild.

For some villagers, this misconception may be reinforced by middlemen who move from village to village, linking buyers with sellers, enticing people into trading pangolins. Often, middlemen offer substantially more money for sourcing and transporting pangolins than the minimum wage earned by, for example, local farmers.

Existing research indicates that socio-economically disadvantaged people are often most vulnerable to exploitation in the illegal wildlife trade.

The buy-and-bust approach employed by law enforcement authorities in some countries, including Malawi, further complicates the situation. People are paid a monetary reward if they can provide information to officers which leads to arrests. Some middlemen were said to be recruiting locals into the trade with the intention of then reporting them to the police for money, thereby creating and sustaining a live pangolin trade.

Unexpected side-effects like these can arise from interventions aiming to reduce crime. The importance of regular impact evaluation and subsequent tailoring of efforts cannot be overemphasised.

The dirt roads to border villages in Malawi were long and winding, much like the way to end the pangolin trade. Domestic and international funders should continue to allocate resources to support local governments and CSOs to improve public understanding of the values of species conservation, the importance of alternative livelihoods, and to build long-term capacity for sustained law enforcement and criminal justice impacts.

* Read the full report with EIA’s recommendations.