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Pangolin Prison 

This article is brought to you by the International League of Conservation Photographers (iLCP). Read our other articles on the National Geographic Voices blog featuring the work of our iLCP Fellow Photographers all around the world.

Text and photos by iLCP Fellow Paul Hilton.

A pangolin waits for it's freedom, after a wildlife bust, 27th April 2015, Medan, Indonesia. A huge seizure of pangolin was conducted by the Indonesian National Police along side WCS’s, Wildlife Crimes Unit. The Haul of the World’s Most Hunted Animal is valued at USD 1.4 million. Photo: Paul Hilton of WCS
A pangolin waits for its freedom, after a wildlife bust, 27th April 2015, Medan, Indonesia. A huge seizure of pangolin was conducted by the Indonesian National Police along side WCS’s, Wildlife Crimes Unit. The haul of the world’s most hunted animal is valued at USD 1.4 million. Photo: Paul Hilton of WCS

I’m back in Sumatra for the second time in a month. My taxi pulls up into an industrial part of town, where we are greeted by the Wildlife Conservation Society’s, Wildlife Crimes Unit. The smell of seafood lingers in the air as we walk towards a warehouse.

Police in military fatigues stand around outside. As we enter the building I notice a white board on the right. Names of hunters are listed on the left with dates, times and the amounts they dropped off. One hunter going by the name of Joni delivered 10 live pangolins in one day with a total weight of 38.3kg.

We are then escorted past two shipping containers towards the back of the warehouse into a separate room. Sixty multi-coloured poultry crates line the floor, prison cells with stressed, scared and dehydrated pangolins pacing back and forth. Some curled up in fear.

Poultry cages line the floor of the seafood warehouse, full of pangolins. 27th April 2015, Medan, Sumatra, Indonesia. Photo: Paul Hilton for WCS
Poultry cages line the floor of the seafood warehouse, full of pangolins. 27th April 2015, Medan, Sumatra, Indonesia. Photo: Paul Hilton for WCS
A total of 96 live pangolins are kept in poultry cages, 27th April 2015, Medan Indonesia. During a pangolin bust conducted by the Indonesian National Police along side WCS’s Wildlife Crimes Unit. Photo: Paul Hilton of WCS
A total of 96 live pangolins are kept in poultry cages, 27th April 2015, Medan Indonesia. Photo: Paul Hilton of WCS

After absorbing that scene, I’m quickly called over to view the inside of a refrigerated shipping container, as the door opened I was hit with a cloud of condensation, it started to clear, frozen pangolins were randomly placed in plastic bags and boxes alongside sacks of pangolin scales and meat. Additional to the large container another small fridge/freezer contained another 6 frozen pangolins.

Frozen pangolins, 27th April 2015, Medan Indonesia. During a pangolin bust conducted by the Indonesian National Police along side WCS’s Wildlife Crimes Unit. . Photo: Paul Hilton of WCS
Frozen pangolins, stripped of their scales, 27th April 2015, Medan Indonesia. During a pangolin bust conducted by the Indonesian National Police along side WCS’s Wildlife Crimes Unit. Photo: Paul Hilton of WCS
Photo: Paul Hilton of WCS
Photo: Paul Hilton of WCS
Photo: Paul Hilton of WCS
Photo: Paul Hilton of WCS
Photo: Paul Hilton of WCS
Photo: Paul Hilton of WCS

My mind raced off to Southern China and Vietnam where these animals are consumed by the thousands for the exotic meat trade, and the scales are used in traditional Chinese medicine with the unfounded claim that they treat a variety of ailments. Sadly the pangolin has become the most highly traded mammal on the black market, and consequently one of the most threatened.

This huge seizure was a joint operation between the Indonesian National Police’s Criminal Investigation Division (BARESKRIM MABES POLRI), the Government of Indonesia, and the Wildlife Conservation Society’s Wildlife Crimes Unit (WCU) in Medan, Sumatra.

A total of 96 live animals were found, along side 5 tons of frozen pangolins, 100 kilograms of scales with an estimated black market value of 1.8 million US dollars.  Plus 24 bear paws.

Deputy Director Special Crime, CID of the Indonesian National Police, Police Senior Commissioner Didid Widjanardi displays frozen pangolins, 27th April 2015, Medan Indonesia. Photo: Paul Hilton of WCS
Deputy Director Special Crime, CID of the Indonesian National Police, Police Senior Commissioner Didid Widjanardi displays frozen pangolins, 27th April 2015, Medan Indonesia. Photo: Paul Hilton of WCS
A plain cloths poilce officer inspects frozen pangolin during a press conference at the crime scene, 27th April 2015, Medan, Indonesia. Photo: Paul Hilton for WCS
A plain cloths police officer inspects frozen pangolin during a press conference at the crime scene, 27th April 2015, Medan, Indonesia. Photo: Paul Hilton for WCS
Bags full of pangolin scales, ready for export on the black market.
Bags full of pangolin scales, ready for export on the black market.

The bust took place on April 23, 2015, at a warehouse near Belawan port in Medan, the largest city on the island of Sumatra. Belawan port has a reputation for being a smuggling hub for illegal wildlife trade in Sumatra. The trader, identified by the initials SHB operating a seafood trading company, by the name of UD Sumber Laut Utama, sourced all the pangolins from local hunters/traders in Aceh and North Sumatra, bordering the Leuser ecosystem. SHB is now under arrest, pending a court case. Under the Indonesian law, trafficking of pangolins and their parts or by-products is punishable by a maximum penalty of five years of imprisonment and a maximum fine of USD $10,000.

In recent years, the price of pangolin has increased sharply in the international market, driven by demand from China.  Pangolin scales (used by traditional Chinese medicine practitioners) are valued at USD $3,000 per kg, pangolin meat (considered a delicacy) at USD $300 per kg, and live pangolins at USD $992. Smugglers also ship pangolin innards, including fetuses, for traditional medicinal purposes.

Based upon evidence gathered during the arrest, the shipment was headed to China via Belawan port where the container was to be transferred to a vessel destined for China via Haiphong Seaport in Vietnam. The trader also admitted to shipping live pangolins to Penang, Malaysia through the remote seaport in the past.

Belawan port, Medan, Sumatra, Indonesia, 28th April 2015. Photo: Paul Hilton for WCS
Belawan port, Medan, Sumatra, Indonesia, 28th April 2015. Photo: Paul Hilton for WCS

There are eight species of pangolins (Family: Manidae) still in existence worldwide. Four of the species are of Asian origin including the Sunda Pangolin (Manis javanicus), which is listed as Critically Endangered by the International Union for Conservation of Nature. The pangolin’s large scales are made of keratin, the same material as fingernails and rhino horns, and account for 20% of its weight.

Deputy Director Special Crime, CID of the Indonesian National Police, Police Senior Commissioner Didid Widjanardi said, “Pangolins are protected under Indonesia Law. The Indonesian National Police and WCS’s WCU have done a great job in tackling pangolin smuggling since 2008. We will continue our collaboration in the future through preventive actions, which is important to saving pangolins.

A couple of hours later the WCS team start loading the live pangolins onto the back of a truck, making preparations to get them to the release site before days end.

Local press and wildlife officials joined the convoy, and after two hours we reach the protected forest on the outskirts of Medan.

On arrival all the crates were offloaded and then carried to different locations in the forest. Some pangolins scurried out of the crates, others needed a helping hand. Some just curled up in balls.

Pangolin release, after 96 live pangolins were confiscated, 27th April 2015, Medan Indonesia. Photo: Paul Hilton of WCS
Pangolin release, after 96 live pangolins were confiscated, 27th April 2015, Medan Indonesia. Photo: Paul Hilton of WCS
Pangolin release, after 96 live panglins were confiscated, 27th April 2015, Medan Indonesia.  Photo: Paul Hilton of WCS
Pangolin release, after 96 live pangolins were confiscated, 27th April 2015, Medan Indonesia. Photo: Paul Hilton of WCS

Before we left the release site I took one last frame. A mother and baby pangolin curled up in a ball. Their fate is in our hands. Is it not a time to reflect on the mistakes we have made and move to a more sustainable and frugal way of life – for the future of all living creatures, including ourselves?

Critically endangered mother and baby pangolin, were part of a release effort on the outskirts of Medan, 27th April 2015, Sumatra, Indonesia. After 96 live pangolins were confiscated during a pangolin bust conducted by the Indonesian National Police along side WCS’s Wildlife Crimes Unit.  Photo: Paul Hilton of WCS
Critically endangered mother and baby pangolin, were part of a release effort on the outskirts of Medan, 27th April 2015, Sumatra, Indonesia.  Photo: Paul Hilton of WCS

Help us is spreading the word about the plight of the pangolin by sharing this article, and letting more people know, before the pangolin is gone.

Please donate to Wildlife Conservation Society: http://www.wcs.org/wcs-org/donate.aspx

Other organizations that are working to raise awareness of the pangolin include Save Pangolins and  International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Species Survival Commission Pangolin Specialist Group.

Support iLCP’s ability to bring you important conservation stories like this one.  Click here to support our work.

 

Comments

  1. Andrea Barbieri
    Italy
    May 9, 2015, 5:16 am

    I strongly agree with ILCP’s reply to Dan’s comment, that to help stop the illegal wildlife trade, it is necessary to give hunters a way to find an income outside of poaching. Sometimes very lucrative businesses based on overexploitation of natural resources or practices harmful to the environment, find their biggest allies in people who cannot afford to think about the consequences to their actions. A few dollars are peanuts for such businesses but can probably buy several meals for poor families.
    I wouldn’t forget education as a key factor to fighting these practices: teach hunters that actions that lead to the extinction of pangolins, or the loss of forest to palm oil plantations, although perceived as a short term solution to their financial woes, can be a disaster in the long run.

  2. Kerstin Kristiansen
    Chicago,IL
    May 7, 2015, 4:24 pm

    I truly, truly have begin despise the Chinese culture for its antiquated, cruel and greedy customs and lame excuses of folk medicine and superstition to slaughter what is really the worlds heritage.
    China is very much the enemy to our way if life.
    BUY AMERICAN. BOYCOTT PALMOIL.

  3. Kerstin Kristiansen
    Chicago,Il
    May 7, 2015, 4:20 pm

    I truly, truly have come to despise Chinese culture and its customs. Heinous, antiquated and cruel I wish to see the whole nation shut down.
    This is the very enemy to our way of life.

  4. Michelle DiCesare
    United States
    May 4, 2015, 9:07 pm

    Seahorses run the risk of becoming extinct also. The Chinese use them for their supposed medicinal purpose too.

  5. Paul Hilton
    Hong Kong
    May 4, 2015, 5:46 pm

    Boris I agree, foie gras has a lot to answer for, but this article is fact, if it wasn’t for the Chinese and Vietnamese consumption pangolins wouldn’t be in this sorry state. After living in China for 20 years and following the wildlife trade for so many of those years from bear bile farming to shark fin and manta ray gill trade. It really is a bit worry for all species. Sadly as these species become more endangered, the prices sky rocket, traders stand to make thousands of dollars and to make matters worse, as a species becomes hard to source, the same traders start lining up other species to take it’s place, it’s happened time and time again. For example, take now Totoaba before that it was Bahaba, at the same time it’s wiping out the vaquita.

  6. Andrea
    Sri Lanka
    May 4, 2015, 8:57 am

    The only way to stop all this is through the rigorous application of two concepts and it is unfortunately, God who is not believed by many. Then follow the precepts of decency and avoidance of greed? “Do not kill” and “Do not covet”. Every person who covets the animal for whatever purpose, be it the Black rhino and its horn to help keep the aging roues “Up” and “in the running” is also based on “belief” that it can bring back virility. aka Viagra.or medicines, and the rich will continue to want longevity in merely these two uses. Add to them the several others, it equates to mass murder of a living creature to prolong the life of a human..

    Per se, Education and the lack of it is what causes this murder, and the ones who spout murder are the Mullah’s and the elders who are said to be educated but are in fact most illiterate and uneducated. Pleasures of the flesh will always result in the death of another being, and the same is the sad use of of children who also trust like animals and are abused and then killed. How can one change a culture or a Religion? It is too global a task, but we can therefore kill the trade since education reaches only a few.

  7. Isitjustme
    seattle,Wa.,USA
    May 3, 2015, 6:57 am

    feeling sick about animal trafficking, including humans and Pangolins.

    We have got to get control over this mentality: if one can afford to buy it,then use it.Humans most trafficked, but rhinos,elephant tusks, pangolins,skin hand bags make us less as a species. SHAMED BY THIS STORY

  8. Carrie
    May 2, 2015, 10:40 pm

    CHINA is f’d up. Stop with this nonsense.

  9. Boris
    May 2, 2015, 9:38 am

    I think it is worth noting the bias of this article. The trade in animals of all kinds is horrible, but this article makes it seem as if China is somehow responsible for a moral crime, when if we looked at the conditions that produce much foie gras, for example, we see that the West is also capable of creating animal misery for human consumption. Perhaps it is the “exoticism” that allows us to feel outraged while blind to our own mistreatment of the environment.

  10. Mat Cottam
    May 2, 2015, 9:26 am

    …sorry, Dan, I forgot to mention another very significant factor for Red Listing of Conservation Status – “reduction” and “continued decline” in numbers. With this you can have a fairly numerous species today, but predict that if pressure continues at current rates, it will soon run into problems. Judging from the numbers mentioned in this article, my guess would be this might be a factor in the assessment of pangolins.

  11. Mat Cottam
    May 2, 2015, 8:18 am

    Dan Natusch, Red Listing of an animal’s conservation status is dependant on many factors. Numbers in the wild are just one element, range is another, reproductive strategy is another (time to sexual maturity, numbers of young etc.) which effect recovery time. These factors combine to mean that an animal may be comparatively common in a specific location, but still critically endangered. Please don’t assume that scientists just make stuff about the endangered status of wildlife. Conservation status is generally based on a lot of science and hard work – maybe if you dig a little deeper you will find there are people who know stuff about pangolins…

  12. Dan Natusch
    Australia/Indonesia
    May 2, 2015, 4:10 am

    A couple of point of note:

    1) It seems rather difficult to believe that a species capable of being harvested and kept in such large numbers is “critically endangered”.

    2) Why not legalise the trade (remove the zero quota for harvest)? In a place like Indonesia, with so many poor people trying to make a living, it’s little wonder that anything with a price tag is being collected and exported – even if it is illegal. Furthermore, isn’t it Indonesia’s right to utilize its natural resources for the benefit of its people? Europeans did exactly the same thing – yet now we have the audacity to frown upon countries that want to improve their situations.

    Allowing a regulated legal trade would give us an opportunity to learn about the ecology of this species from the same people that are now hunting them so successfully. As it stands we know absolutely nothing about Pangolins (another reason why the claims of “nearing extinction” are ridiculous. They very well could be – but there is zero evidence to prove it, either for or against.). And guess what would happy to the population if trade was legalised? Nothing. Illegal trade is depleting it now, so if it was legalised nothing will have changed – except that we’ll have some baseline information on just how many individuals are being harvested each year (and a hell of a lot more biological information).

    I’m not sure about what’s going to happen with this species, but sitting around relying on “enforcement” – only to feed our jollies when the Pangolin SWAT team gets the odd bust/National Geographic article – has to be the worst of several options.

    Time to think outside the box.

    • Hi Dan,

      Thank you for you comment. A few replies to your points:
      1) The fact that pangolins were found in such numbers in this bust is not an indication of them being numerous, but rather an indication of an out of control crisis. There are plenty of examples from history where a species was considered numerous, and then went extinct before we realized it. The American Passenger Pigeon was once found in the billions – billions – but it only took a few decades to eliminate the whole population, the last one dying in 1914. Hunters thought them plentiful until the end. Same for the American bison, which did not go extinct, but the population has never recovered. More recently, until about a decade ago, very few shark species were at risk, now they nearly all are, as they are being harvested by the million annually for shark fin. African elephants existed in healthy populations all over Africa until just a few years ago, and now are highly endangered. Over 1 million pangolins have been taken out of the wild in the last decade, which is having a critical effect on the viability of multiple populations of the animal in Asia and Africa. In Indonesia, they are currently being harvested in large numbers as palm oil plantations continue to destroys hundreds more acres of rainforest every day, driving the pangolin out of their habitat and into poachers hands. This is not a situation where there are large healthy populations, but rather one where populations are being completely wiped out by poachers. So yes, it is a highly endangered animal, and getting more so with every hour.
      2) to your point of legalizing hunting and trade of the pangolin, multiple studies have been done about ivory and rhino horn trade that proves that rather than normalizing the trade, such measures would simply amplify it. The main problem comes from the fact that corruption in countries were endangered animals are at risk is so rife, that it makes it impossible to know what is legal or illegal hunting. It also gives the impression to the buyers of endangered animal products that the products are readily available, and drives up the demand, leading to more killing, and more disregard of quotas. The answer to protecting endangered animals is not increasing their kill. Please take a look at this article: http://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/2014/08/140829-elephants-trophy-hunting-poaching-ivory-ban-cities/
      3) You comment seems to imply that writing articles is as far as activism goes, that we do not think outside the box. That is disputable. Yes, articles are needed to let the public know what is happening, but that is only the tip of iceberg. Multiple NGOs are on the ground in Indonesia and elsewhere working with the population to educate them about endangered species. Multiple organizations are working with hunters to help them find an income outside of poaching. They are also working with national and local authorities, police, national park rangers and all of the organizations that deal with poachers. There are also major campaigns going on in China to help curb the demand for products from endangered animals, and already there are signs of changing attitudes toward shark fin, for example. There are thousands of people out there thinking out of the box to help improve the lives of the people and the animals affected, and they do a lot more than write articles for a western public. It will take a lot of time and effort to change habits and old beliefs, but it is slowly happening.

  13. Patricia Luskan
    Australia
    May 1, 2015, 11:48 pm

    china has a lot to answer for , all their stupid unfounded medicinal medicines from this to rhino horn and elephant tusk to bile from bears
    Totally cruel and someone needs to get them up to speed with the rest of the world

  14. Thank you for your comments and concern. As for claims that Chinese black market traders are responsible for this massacre, the answer might not be that cut and dry. While it’s true that China drives demand for the pangolin, the spread of palm oil plantations in Indonesia is what is mostly responsible for destroying the pangolin’s wild habitat, and making them easier to catch by poachers. When the rainforests are bulldozed to make way for plantations, the reclusive pangolins are driven out of their habitats and into inhabited or cultivated areas. Paul Hilton also wrote this article about the subject earlier this year: http://voices.nationalgeographic.com/2015/02/20/poachers-of-pangolins/
    So, it’s not just China, it’s also all of us who continually buy products that include palm oil, and that continue to drive the demand for palm oil. Check your product labels, and you will find that nearly everything we use and consume on a daily basis, from a bar a chocolate to a bar of soap, includes palm oil. We need to start asking more responsible actions from the mega-corporations that fuel the destruction of the Indonesian rainforest by the millions of acres every year. So, yes, China is to blame for a lot of this senseless slaughter, but the roots of the problem are much deeper than that, and reach all the way to Europe and the Americas too.

  15. Pamela skidmore
    Usa
    May 1, 2015, 2:01 pm

    I am so sick and tired of man believing he can do what he wants to whom he wants anytime he wants !

  16. bonnie
    Denver, CO USA
    May 1, 2015, 1:24 pm

    China is to blame and it is a disgrace to their country to allow this destruction of the world’s wildlife. Increase the penalties to make them more relevant to the crime. And, China MUST take action against the importers.

  17. Kate. Danum
    Denmark
    May 1, 2015, 1:19 pm

    It’s cruel and sick.

  18. Kate. Danum
    Denmark
    May 1, 2015, 1:15 pm

    It’s cruel and sick.

  19. Janice
    New Brunswick Canada
    May 1, 2015, 12:08 pm

    The last statement struck me : ” Help us is spreading the word about the plight of the pangolin by sharing this article, and letting more people know, before the pangolin is gone”
    I have never been to China.. but I do know that they seem to be the culture that is causing most of the endangered animal list to increase year after year. Chinese are not stupid people.. why do they not understand what they are doing? I have never been to Sumatra either but as a human being, I KNOW THIS IS WRONG.. If the UBER wealthy Chinese people who pay so much money for these illegal animal parts, paid local Sumatran people to grow sustainable food/ medicinal medicine etc instead of killing every animal they incorrectly believe will give them some health benefits.. this would be a much better world.. STOP THE KILLING CHINA!!!! Yes I BLAME YOU

  20. jen
    Ottawa
    May 1, 2015, 11:57 am

    It’s a sad state of mind when I see the dead ones and think “at least they weren’t descaled alive”. Sigh. Leave nature in the nature.

  21. Cindy Rock
    Portland, Oregon
    May 1, 2015, 4:27 am

    The killing of animals for human greed is the root of great evil in this world. Such waste of the wonderful gifts we are given. We must increase the fines/punishments and boycott all commerce with countries allowing this horrific trade to occur. What will be left of the world if this isn’t stopped? So sad.

  22. Sameer Karkal
    United Arab Emirates
    April 29, 2015, 9:49 am

    Pangolins are almost in extinct zone.. Demand is increasing everyday.. Its sad to see them fading away from cruel mankind thoughts… Thanks to post this article.. I hope someday this wildlife trade will be completely stopped..

  23. susete cardoso
    South Africa
    April 29, 2015, 3:01 am

    Hunting of Pangolins must stop before that they desapear from the wild, herefore from the planet.