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One of the most unique mammals in the world is still threatened by large-scale illegal hunting and trade. This World Pangolin Day, we celebrate the scaly anteaters, but also commit to protecting them.
Pangolins have become a highly prized commodity, illegally trapped, killed, and trafficked by organized crime networks between countries and continents. From 2016 to 2019, an estimated 206.4 tonnes of pangolin scales were intercepted and confiscated from 52 seizures. This is equivalent to about 360,000 pangolins being poached according to a report by the Wildlife Justice Commission entitled Scaling up - The Rapid Growth in the Industrial Scale Trafficking of Pangolin Scales. These pangolin are often destined for the traditional medicine market in Asia or bushmeat markets in Central and the southern parts of West Africa.
COVID-19 has shone a spotlight on the perils of large-scale wildlife trade and the link to human health. People are in constant contact with wild animals, and those wild animals are often held in cramped, stressful, and unsanitary spaces. IFAW’S report Beyond COVID-19 documents research showing that human diseases that originated from animals (zoonotic diseases) have increased over time, with wildlife trade a likely contributing factor.
Reducing the illegal wildlife trade will not only protect the species, it will help protect people as well. Pangolins have been identified as a likely intermediary species in the virus’ journey from a wild animal disease to a human pandemic. Although the jury is still out on the exact path of the virus, what is clear is that repeated and sustained close contact with wild animals, likely facilitated by illegal and legal trade, is a huge risk factor for animal diseases jumping to humans.
China banned pangolin hunting from the wild in 2007 and the commercial imports of the pangolin and pangolin products were completely stopped from August 2018.
In February 2020, China's legislature, the National People's Congress, moved quickly to ban the trade and consumption of wild animals. It also stepped up revisions of wildlife protection laws, upgrading the protection of the pangolin to a top-class protected animal.
In June 2020, it was reported that the Chinese government no longer includes pangolin scales on the list of approved raw ingredients for medicinal drugs.
This news couldn’t have come any sooner. Despite the global ban of international trade of pangolins in 2017, they continue to be trafficked at unconscionable levels. According to the Wildlife Justice Commission’s analysis of large-scale seizures of illegal pangolin scale shipments, over 81 tonnes of pangolin scales were seized in 2019 which is a marked increase from about 25 tonnes in 2016.
As Asian pangolin populations have plummeted, the demand for scales has shifted to the African species. According to a UNODC report, at least 51 tonnes of pangolin scales seized in 2019 involved Nigeria as a source. In 2015, Nigeria was involved in only two tonnes.
IFAW strategically cooperates with China's Customs Anti-Smuggling Bureau to promote law enforcement exchanges and cooperation between China Customs and the customs of key countries in Southeast Asia.
The China-Vietnam cross-border law enforcement workshop supported by IFAW in September 2018 motivated the Vietnam Customs enforcers, resulting in three big seizures by Vietnam Customs within one month. This included a seizure of ivory (193 kilograms) and pangolin scale (805 kgs) at Hanoi airport on September 30th, a seizure of two tonnes of ivory and six tonnes of scales in a container from Nigeria on October 4th, and another seizure at Hanoi airport on October 12th involved 34 kgs of rhino horn.
In May 2019, another Mainland China-Hong Kong SAR-Vietnam workshop organized by IFAW resulted in a big seizure of 7.5 tonnes of ivory and pangolin scales seized at Hai Phong port, Vietnam in June 2019.