Pangolins are reclusive nocturnal creatures and the only mammal wholly covered in scales. They remain elusive, with researchers having limited knowledge of their ecology, yet they are now arguably the most heavily trafficked wild mammal in the world. Due largely to their exploitation in illegal trade, all species of pangolin were transferred from CITES Appendix II to Appendix I at the CITES Conference of the Parties in 2016. There are eight species of pangolin: four found in Asia and four found in Africa. They have traditionally been consumed in both regions, but only recently have the two markets met.
Today, demand for pangolins in Asia is being supplied by pangolins from Africa. In both regions, pangolins are killed for their meat and their scales, which have been used medicinally. Pangolin products have been used in traditional Chinese medicine for thousands of years to treat a wide range of ailments. The scales are said to promote blood circulation and increase lactation in pregnant women, while the meat is used as a tonic. They are also used as medicine in Africa. In Nigeria, for example, pangolin parts are used to treat a wide range of physical and psychological conditions. All eight species of pangolins are believed to be in decline, but since exact population counts are unavailable, it is difficult to determine the conservation impact of the illegal trade.
Shipments of whole (often live) pangolins have been seized in Asia, but most of the largest recent seizures have involved pangolin scales sourced from Africa. Prior to 2009, the international trade involved mostly pangolin meat and scales, sourced in Asia. The reasons for the shift to African sources is unclear, but may be due to declining Asian populations. There have been very few seizures of pangolin meat from Africa. The reasons for this are also unclear, but almost all the World WISE pangolin seizures coming from Africa have been comprised of scales.
Most of the large African scale shipments originated in West and Central Africa, where three out of the four African pangolin species are found. Four pangolin species are also found in South-East, South and East Asia. Most of the trade for all species is destined for East and South-East Asian countries. Before 2016, the largest seizures intercepted amounted to less than 10,000 live pangolin equivalents. In 2019, the three major seizures made by Singapore were equivalent to more than twice that number.
The legal trade in African pangolin species was rare until about 2014. Between 2013 to 2017 , the amount of pangolin scales legally imported went from almost zero to nearly 13 tons, with four countries being responsible for the bulk of the shipments: Burundi, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Congo (Brazzaville) and Uganda. China was the importer of 99 per cent of this volume.
Based on World WISE seizure data, it appears that, starting in 2013, the source of seized pangolins shifted to the African continent, primarily to West and Central Africa. Seizures were made first on shipments coming from Cameroon, then Nigeria, and then (in 2016) from the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Other source countries include the Central African Republic, Congo, Gabon and Uganda. Illegal pangolin trade in Nigeria seems to have grown significantly in recent years, and the country was the reported provenance of at least 51 tons of pangolin scales seized in 2019.
Entering the illicit trade chain is easy. Without the need for the heavy guns and specialized equipment required for big game hunting, anyone can participate. New entrants only need supplies costing US$3 to US$5, with hunters making anywhere from US$8 to US$13 for a small live pangolin and US$25 to US$30 for a large one. In Uganda, hunters report being able to catch anywhere from one to 20 pangolins per day.
Hunters in Uganda track the animals and set traps while hunters in Cameroon use wire traps or hunting dogs. Pangolins, once dead, are immersed in hot water or fire and descaled with a knife. The scales are then dried in the sun in centralized ‘drying camps’ set up by hunters in the forest. Some hunters reported keeping the meat to eat. In Cameroon, scales were also recovered from open bushmeat markets in the region or from restaurants selling the meat. Most people seem to understand that pangolins can be sold for profit, which encourages local hunters to catch them whenever possible. Most hunters and even traders know very little about the animal itself and have radically different and often misguided ideas of what consumers used the animals for, including making bullet-proof vests out of their scales.
Trafficking is done by sea, air and land, and parcel post is also sometimes used. Some are even smuggled in luggage. Pangolin traffickers often use the same routes to export and import pangolin scales as they do ivory. A third of hunters and traders in Uganda take advantage of the weak border controls and security challenges in northern Uganda, Democratic Republic of the Congo and South Sudan. Traders and traffickers also store stockpiles of scales in countries where the rule of law is weaker and wildlife crime enforcement limited before moving the scales for immediate sale to buyers in more high-risk locations.
Nigeria is the primary point of export of pangolin shipments, while Viet Nam has emerged as the primary destination. In October 2019, the Chinese government announced having seized 23 tons of pangolin scales in China in a series of operations. These shipments were coming from Nigeria via the Republic of Korea. Ivory traffickers appear to be involved in the pangolin scale trade, often transporting shipments of ivory and pangolin specimens together.
Based on seizures, most pangolin scales are destined for traditional medicine use in China, followed by other Southeast Asian countries. Some 71 per cent of seizures of whole pangolin where the destination was known, were destined for China, with 19 per cent bound for Viet Nam.
In China, the cities of Fangchengang, Guangzhou and Kunming are key nodes for pangolin trafficking. In a survey of five major Chinese cities in 2012, Guangzhou residents reported the highest rates of wildlife consumption for food and as ingredients for traditional medicine. Consumer surveys in 2018 of 1,800 people living in Chinese cities with active markets for wildlife products (Beijing, Guangzhou, Harbin, Kunming, Nanning and Shanghai,) support the increased demand argument, especially for scales. The number of people who reported they had bought pangolin products in the last 12 months increased by 12 per cent from previous studies in both Beijing and Shanghai and remained stable in Kunming and Nanning while decreasing only slightly in Guangzhou and Harbin (4 and 3 per cent, respectively). Some 68 per cent of that group reported that they intended to rebuy pangolin products in the future, suggesting that there is a stable base of buyers regardless of campaigns against the practice. The government announcement in August 2019 that pangolin products would no longer be covered by China’s state insurance funds could reduce purchases overall. A 2018 survey of 1,500 wildlife product consumers in key Vietnamese cities (Can Tho, Da Nang, Hai Phong, Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City) found similar results and consumer profiles for pangolin scales and powder. About 60 per cent of the sampled buyers who bought pangolin products in the last 12 months and 54 per cent of all buyers of pangolin products surveyed indicated that they would purchase these again, suggesting a strong continuing consumer demand. In addition, 52 per cent of these buyers, who mostly buy from private sellers, reported making an unplanned purchase of pangolin products influenced by the seller’s recommendation. This suggests that sales pressure drives about half of consumer purchases.