Illegal trade seizures: Pangolins

Mapping the crimes

Pangolins, also known as scaly ant eaters, are one of the most illegally traded species on the planet, killed for their meat and scales.

Globally, there are eight species of pangolin distributed across the continents of Asia and Africa. The four found in Asia – the Indian Pangolin (Manis crassicaudata), Philippine Pangolin (Manis culionensis), Sunda Pangolin (Manis javanica) and Chinese Pangolin (Manis pentadactyla) – are all listed on Appendix II of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES).

Species on Appendix II can be traded but, in the case of Asia’s pangolins, there is currently a zero quota on exports of wild specimens for commercial purposes. The African pangolin species – black-bellied pangolin (Phataginus tetradactyla), white-bellied pangolin (Phataginus tricuspis), giant ground pangolin (Smutsia gigantea) and Temminck’s ground pangolin (Smutsia temminckii) – are also on CITES Appendix II, but with no trade restrictions.

All eight pangolin species are, however, threatened with the risk of extinction, with wide acceptance that populations for all are in serious decline. As such, the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) lists all Asian pangolin species as either “Critically Endangered” or “Endangered” while the African species are all listed as “Vulnerable”.

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Customs officers in Vietnam with more than 100 live pangolins seized from smugglers in December 2012

Customs officers in Vietnam with more than 100 live pangolins seized from smugglers in December 2012

Hunting for trade is the primary threat to the survival of all pangolin species. Trade in the primary markets of East Asia and South-East Asia is mainly driven by the demand for the meat, which is expensive and consumed to demonstrate status, and the scales, which are used in traditional medicine. It was only in May 2015 that the Vietnam Government stopped pangolin scales being available under health insurance schemes, while China still has a domestic yearly quota of roughly 25 tonnes of pangolin scale for medicinal use.

Available seizure data suggests that the scale of illegal trade has increased since 2008 as a result of growing demand from consumer nations. It has recently been estimated that as many as one million pangolins have been illegally traded within Asia in the past 10 to15 years. This unsustainable illegal trade continues today, seemingly unabated. Recent seizures include 2,500 pangolin carcasses in Jiangmen in China in November 2015 and a warehouse bust in April 2015 in Belawan Port, Medan, Indonesia, which led to the seizure of 96 live Pangolins, five tonnes of frozen pangolins and 100kg of scales. Trafficking in such large quantities occurring on an international scale highlights the organised nature of this illegal trade.

Alongside the illegal trade, huge volumes of licensed exports raise questions about sustainability. Despite the rampant poaching and illegal trade threatening all pangolins, and despite questions over the legality of acquisition, Uganda authorised the export of over seven tonnes of pangolin scales in one shipment in 2015. With the rapidly decreasing populations of Asian pangolin species due to such heavy and unsustainable hunting pressures, a relatively significant growth in the trade of African pangolin species, especially for scales, has been observed over the past eight years.

The interactive map, above, highlights the international nature of the pangolin trade; it is based on a subset of poaching and seizure incidents from 2000-15, compiled by EIA and derived from publicly available records, from primarily English and Chinese language sources.

This map represents only a fraction of actual trade in pangolins during that time period, with the data being limited by the inherent biases generated by the types of media monitored, accurate reporting of seizures, levels of media interest in pangolins and research capacity; therefore it is not an exhaustive data set. The map does, however, highlight key border crossings, ports and countries where there has been a significant reporting of trade in pangolins over the past 15 years.

Where scales have been seized, and where possible, the number of pangolins required to provide that weight in scales has been roughly estimated using a mean weight for an Asian pangolins of 5kg per adult with the scales constituting, very roughly, 20 per cent of body weight, although this does vary between species and efforts to come up with a more accurate average figure are ongoing.

Where no specific location was given, a data point has been placed roughly in the centre of the country in which the seizure occurred. There are a number of locations with multiple seizures over the study time frame and these are coloured darker than those locations with fewer seizures.

EIA welcomes referenced information to update the map and the dataset is available for research and analysis upon request from charlottedavies(at)eia-international.org.

The plight of pangolins globally is at a crisis point, with populations for all eight species at risk of extinction due to unprecedented levels of illegal trade. The time is now to ensure that these unique species continue to exist and thrive in their natural habitats.

EIA supports the call for Parties to CITES to list pangolins on Appendix I, prohibiting all international trade. We urge countries that legitimise the use of pangolin scales in medicine to amend legislation to end this practice, and for all consumer countries to launch demand-reduction campaigns.

EIA further recommends that all countries with high levels of illegal trade invest in an effective enforcement and criminal justice response to wildlife crime, including increasing prosecutions and deterrent sentencing for those convicted of illegally trading in pangolins.