Where trafficked pangolins originate is a puzzle, hobbling efforts to save them
- In recent years, the traffic in pangolin parts, especially scales, from Africa to Asia has picked up pace but determining where seized scales originated has proven difficult, if not impossible.
- These scaly ant-eaters are one of the most trafficked mammals globally, and trade in all eight pangolin species, four of which are found in Africa, is banned.
- Scientists at the University of Washington have developed a technique using genetic data to pinpoint where ivory originated and are trying to replicate it for pangolins.
- Dismantling trafficking networks may not, by itself, protect dwindling pangolin populations, experts say, there is a need to understand what is driving the illegal trade.
This February, Nigeria’s Customs Service intercepted 840 kg of pangolin scales and 145 kg of ivory on its way to Asia, near the country’s main port in Lagos.
Pangolins are one of the most trafficked mammals in the world. Under CITES, the global wildlife treaty, trade in all eight pangolin species is banned, barring exceptional cases. In recent years, the traffic in pangolin parts, especially scales, from Africa to Asia has picked up pace but determining where seized scales were harvested has proven difficult, if not impossible.
‘The way in which the trafficking happens is still a big question mark for us,’ Sarah Stoner, director of intelligence at Wildlife Justice Commission (WJC), a Netherlands-based non-profit, said. WJC collaborated with Nigerian authorities during the February raid.
‘We don’t know how pangolins are being killed, how scales are being harvested. That is something that continues to be a huge impediment in tackling the trade.’
Scientists at the University of Washington in the US have developed a technique using genetic data to pinpoint where ivory originated. ‘We are in the process of developing similar technology for pangolins, especially since 25% of large seizures of pangolin scales are commingled with ivory,’ Samuel Wasser, a conservation biologist at the University of Washington, told Times of Nation in an email.
Wasser’s team is piecing together a DNA reference map for pangolins. ‘We have also started accumulated samples from recent pangolin seizures,’ he said. ‘However, they won’t be fully analyzed until we have sufficient pangolin samples to compare them to in our reference map.’
Four pangolin species are found in Africa- Black-bellied pangolin (Phataginus tetradactyla), White-bellied pangolin (Phataginus tricuspis), Giant Ground pangolin (Smutsia gigantea) and Temminck’s Ground pangolin (Smutsia temminckii).
Nigeria, the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) and Cameroon are most often linked to seized pangolin contraband. Nigeria has emerged as a major hub in the international trade in pangolin scales. Increasing global cooperation in tackling trafficking has led to more seizures. In the past 13 months, at least four major raids occurred in Nigeria alone.
Last November, a joint operation between the DRC and the US led to the seizure of ivory and pangolin scales valued at $3.5 million. US law enforcement picked up two suspects outside Seattle, Washington, but most of their stash was recovered from DRC’s capital, Kinshasa.
It is a rare thing for a seizure to occur in the DRC. A WJC analysis of 52 pangolin seizures between 2016 and 2019 showed that of the nine linked to the DRC, none were detected within the country’s borders. Most illegal wildlife products leave the continent undetected and may be intercepted in transit or at their destinations. Once contraband is shipped overseas, it often becomes harder to trace back.
What’s more, by the time raids occur, however, the animals are already dead. Between 2010 and 2021, 190,407 kg of pangolin products, mostly scales, were recovered in seizures linked to Nigeria, which translates to at least 800,000 dead individuals.
‘When we start working, most of the time, it’s too late in terms of conservation,’ Henri Fournel, Interpol’s coordinator of environmental security, told National Geographic in 2019 after the conclusion of a major trans-national operation against wildlife trafficking. ‘We just want to make it clear to the criminals that…we are just watching them.’
But dismantling trafficking networks may not by itself protect dwindling pangolin populations. ‘We need to understand what the root cause of the trafficking is,’ Charles Emogor, an ecologist at the University of Cambridge, told Times of Nation. ‘Are people killing the pangolins for the bushmeat or primarily to feed the demand for scales?’
Without this knowledge, Emogor and other experts say, it is difficult to design effective interventions to protect remaining pangolin populations.
China and Vietnam are the biggest markets for pangolin scales, which are used in traditional medicines. In the wake of the pandemic and amid growing concerns about zoonotic diseases, China enacted measures to disincentivize the use of pangolin scales in traditional medicine. In 2020 the government removed pangolin scales from a list of approved ingredients in traditional medicine.
However, anti-trafficking investigators like Adams Cassinga, founder of Conserv Congo, a non-profit in the DRC, says that it is a ‘misconception’ that the demand for scales is driving the poaching of pangolins. ‘Pangolin scales are what we call collateral damage,’ he said. ‘The number one motivation of the decimation of wildlife in Africa is bushmeat, because people are hungry.’
Some recent findings suggest this is true. ‘In my study site, Cross River National Park in Nigeria, people do not go out hunting pangolins. They actually get pangolins as part of the general wildmeat hunting,’ Emogor said.
The scales, which are not eaten, are a byproduct that could become a source of extra income. But Emogor cautioned against drawing blanket conclusions. Drivers differ from one region to the other within Nigeria and across countries.
Emogor and Cassinga echoed the need to focus on communities that are involved in poaching. ‘We need to empower local organizations. We need to educate the people. The locals have got to own the conservation,’ Cassinga said. ‘Then the law can be enforced in the proper way because you have given people options.’
(Banner Image- A tree pangolin (Phataginus tricuspis) in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Image courtesy of Valerius Tygart/ Wikimedia Commons.)
(News Source -Except for the headline, this story has not been edited by Times Of Nation staff and is published from a news.mongabay.com feed.)
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