Growing demand for the pangolin in some Asian countries, where its scales are used in traditional medicine and its meat is a delicacy among some ultra-wealthy households, is threatening the survival of the shy, harmless animal. ALICK PONJE writes.
It arrived on the scene as a rare sight not common among Malawians.
But those moments, a few years ago, became a harbinger of how much sought after the pangolin could become even among those tasked to protect it.
Dozens of pangolin smugglers have been arrested and convicted in recent years, but the crime continues unabated.
“Crimes of this nature often end with the extinction of the animals as long as the market remains on the other end.
“There should be concerted efforts to deal with where the animals that have been successfully smuggled end up,” environmental law scholar Jones Richard says.
In the meantime, the pangolin—believed to be the world’s most trafficked mammal—continues to be at the mercy of poachers.
In Malawi, not even the 14- year jail term handed down to a China national, who was part of a wildlife trafficking gang, seems to be deterrent enough.
The group was found guilty of smuggling pangolins, rhino horns and ivory.
Their arrest and subsequent convictions were seen as massive victories by the Department of Parks and Wildlife and its partners.
But it was just days later that other people got arrested for possessing the endangered species.
“It is up to lobbyists to convince countries where the pangolins end up to tighten their relevant laws and criminalise possessing them or their products,” Richard says.
In 2016, 186 countries that are party to the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species, the treaty that regulates the international wildlife trade, voted to ban the commercial trade in pangolins.
Little has been done in totally criminalising the trade.
So, pangolin poachers have a ready market and, having depleted the Asian species, they have now turned to Africa in search of the solitary and mostly nocturnal rare mammal which has become one of the centres of world attention as far as wildlife crimes are concerned.
Following the conviction of the China national, Director of Parks and Wildlife Brighton Kumchedwa expressed optimism that the smuggling and trafficking cartels were successfully being dismantled.
He also disclosed that the foreign syndicate had been recruiting locals to take part in wildlife trafficking for the past 10 years.
“The kingpin of the syndicate was sponsoring wildlife crimes in the region. Putting such people behind bars for that long means disrupting the operations of their cartel. That makes a big difference in the fight against illegal wildlife trade,” Kumchedwa said.
He further stated that Malawi had changed strategies over the years, including investing heavily in technology to help fight poaching.
“We have also improved in our crime surveillance skills. In addition, the police and the courts are supporting us in a big way in investigations and handing out stiff sentences,” Kumchedwa said.
But the regular arrests of pangolin poachers and traffickers also symbolise the spike in cases, according to Richard.
He posits that there could more smugglers who are successfully getting the endangered animal— the only known mammal to be wholly covered in tough overlapping scales—out of the country.
“There is an element in criminal activity where more people being arrested may also imply more people committing crimes and some of them not being caught at all,” Richard says.
Conservationists warn that the extinction of the pangolin could be more imminent now than ever before as organised international criminal networks that targeted African elephant ivory have turned to the shy animal whose biggest predator now is a human being.
“The level at which pangolins are being trafficked is huge compared to what it has been in the past,” says Sarah Stoner, Director of Intelligence at the Wildlife Justice Commission (WJC).
In a TEDx talk towards the end of last year, Stoner highlighted the threats that other endangered species face at the hand of smugglers who often move from one product to another.
“Today I am talking about pangolins; next year it could be pandas or penguins, or a species that may affect you directly… these crimes do impact our natural environment,” she said.
A wildlife trade researcher at Oxford Brookes University Vincent Nijman also cautions that until demand for pangolins and their parts is curtailed, their illegal trade will not die away just like that.
And for some environmental activists and researchers, while Malawi may not appear on WJC’s 27 countries and territories identified as sources, transits or destinations for pangolin scale shipments, the battle must go on in earnest.
“Well, there is evidence about massive pangolin poaching in this country. The per capita rate is obviously high. We must also begin pushing for destinations of pangolin products to be dismantled.
“We must lobby countries where the products end up so that they can sincerely implement the ban that was agreed on,” Richard said.
Alick Ponje is a features writer at The Times Group. He graduated from the University of Malawi with a bachelor’s degree in education, majoring in literature in English. Follow him on Twitter @aponje