Protect the pangolin

Africa’s pangolins at risk



A cautionary tale

Here we share the story of ‘Ms M’, an entrepreneur who moved to Uganda to trade in pangolins and other endangered species. Although posing as a pangolin conservationist, Ms M has been involved in exporting pangolin scales of legally questionable origin for use in the traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) industry.
 

I have the resources over here, ox bezoar (gallstones), pangolins, rhino horn powder … and elephant skins, all of that. You simply can’t compare the natural resources of Africa to China. And besides, it is much easier for me to acquire these resources over here.

Ms M, speaking to an EIA undercover investigator

 
 

Ms M’s case serves as a cautionary tale of how the growing footprint of China’s TCM industry in Africa threatens to drive species such as the pangolin to extinction.

The world’s most trafficked wild mammal

Pangolin

The pangolin is believed to be the world’s most trafficked wild mammal. This charismatic creature is defenceless against the ruthless people who only see the value of its body parts, rather than its crucial role in the web of life on our planet.

Pangolins are hunted and killed for their scales, which are used in traditional Chinese medicine (TCM), both legally and illegally. Their scales are dried and roasted, then used in pills and powders based on medical formulas approved by the Chinese Government.

At EIA, we’re not against plant-based TCM. But we believe it is cruel and morally indefensible to sacrifice endangered animals such as the pangolin for this purpose. Non-animal alternatives are available, and some TCM practitioners are now speaking out against the use of endangered species.

African species under threat

Tragically for the pangolin, the Chinese Government is promoting the expansion of TCM supply chains and markets in Africa. Through its Belt and Road Initiative, China is opening up new trade routes and setting up TCM clinics in many African countries.

This presents a real threat to pangolins and other African wildlife. Unless strong measures are put in place, a rising demand for endangered wildlife products will further incentivise the killing of vulnerable species, including rhinos and elephants.

Our investigations into ‘Ms M’

In 2019, EIA investigators made contact with Ms M in Uganda. During a series of meetings, we built up a detailed picture of her pangolin trade activities.

Before moving to Uganda in 2013, Ms M used to supply TCM ingredients to Chinese pharmaceutical companies, where she built up a network of high ranking contacts. We discovered that Ms M started to trade in pangolins in Uganda in 2013 by exploiting laws permitting some legal wildlife trade. She continued to take advantage of grey areas in the law to pursue this trade, while drawing on the support of associates and government officials in both Africa and China.

Captive breeding

White-bellied pangolin

Ms M also tried to set up a captive breeding programme in Uganda, using pangolins caught from the wild. It is not clear exactly how many pangolins she successfully sourced or bred overall, but in 2016 we believe she had approximately 20 white-bellied pangolins in captivity. Ms M later claimed that at the peak of her operation she had 50-60 pangolins in her facility.

In 2017, she closed this scheme because changes to international laws on pangolin trade had made it more difficult for her to breed and export the pangolins to China.

Pangolins are highly susceptible to stress and disease, so if they are taken from the wild they usually die quickly, and attempts to breed them in captivity have mostly failed.

Caught with pangolin scales

In 2016, the Ugandan authorities searched Ms M’s house and arrested her for possession of a large quantity of pangolin scales, along with hippopotamus ivory and 60 live leopard tortoises. Ms M claimed that the pangolin scales were part of a legal shipment, and denied that the other items were anything to do with her.

Although wildlife defenders in Uganda called for a full and impartial investigation, charges against her were dropped.

Pangolin scales

A secret stockpile

In 2021, Ms M told our investigators that she had accumulated an 18-tonne stockpile of pangolin scales. However, tighter international laws on trade in pangolins after 2016 meant she had been unable to legalise this stockpile and send it to China. She told us that she planned instead to set up TCM factories to process the scales in Africa. This would allow her to process pangolin scales and other raw TCM ingredients into products for export to China and for local sale.

Protecting pangolins

We have shared our evidence on Ms M with government agencies, and we are urging the Ugandan and Chinese Governments to fully investigate her activities.

Ms M’s future plans to develop her TCM pharmaceuticals operation clearly point to a growing wildlife trafficking risk from the expansion of TCM on the African continent.

We are calling on the Chinese Government to declare a complete ban on all commercial trade in pangolins.

African governments must also ensure that TCM businesses in their countries are monitored, and must prosecute any illegal activity.

Please donate

By donating to EIA today, you can support our ongoing fight to save endangered species, including pangolins, from extinction.

Your gift will help us to:

  • Carry out undercover investigations into wildlife traders and criminals.
  • Investigate TCM markets in China to prove that illegal trade in pangolin scales is taking place under the counter.
  • Pursue our campaign for a total ban on pangolin trade.

Donate

Please donate today to help us fight to save pangolins and all the endangered animals that we protect. On behalf of everyone at EIA, thank you.

Julian Newman, Campaigns Director, EIA