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Pangolins On The Brink

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

Pangolin bust, Medan, Indonesia, April 2015. Over 4000 frozen, 97 live and 77 kg of scale where confiscated during a WCS and national police bust of a wildlife trade. Photo: Paul Hilton for WCS

Update on CITES Convention

Over 180 nations approved on Wednesday, September 28, proposals to protect all eight species of pangolin, including a ban on all trade of live pangolin, pangolin meat and scales under Appendix 1. With this international protection of the world’s most trafficked species, conservations efforts can now work with legal backing to prevent the poaching and trade of the pangolin. 

Pangolin bust, Medan, Indonesia, April 2015. Over 4000 frozen, 97 live and 77 kg of scale where confiscated during a WCS and national police bust of a wildlife trade. Photo: Paul Hilton for WCS
Pangolin bust, Medan, Indonesia, April 2015. Over 4000 frozen, 97 live and 77 kg of scale where confiscated during a WCS and national police bust of a wildlife trade. Photo: Paul Hilton for WCS

Having spent 20 years documenting Asia’s environmental triumphs and tragedies, I’m writing this piece as I stand at one of the region’s most notorious wildlife trading routes, Highway 8 in Laos, wondering at the sheer volume of contraband fauna that passes through this area on its way to restaurants serving exotic species, Traditional Chinese Medicine shops, or tiny apartments whose inhabitants desire a pet; the more endangered, the better.

My focus in particular is the pangolin: a small, scaly, creature, rather like an armadillo, with an innocent nature, despite its resemblance to a four-footed, flightless dragon. It is also the world’s most highly-traded mammal, with more than a million being poached from the wild over the last decade, according to the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN). The organization says a pangolin is taken from the wild, either to be killed or sold, every five minutes.

It has taken years for the international community to stand up, and demand an end to the decimation of this gentle creature. On September 24 this year, a global gathering will convene at the annual Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) to push for all eight species of pangolin to be classified under Appendix 1. Although the pangolin trade is already limited, a re-classification will mean it may only be traded “in exceptional circumstances” – the highest level of protection.

Pangolin bust, Medan, Indonesia, April 2015. Over 4000 frozen, 97 live and 77 kg of scale where confiscated during a WCS and national police bust of a wildlife trade. Photo: Paul Hilton for WCS

The proposal has considerable muscle behind it, with The United States, Nigeria, Vietnam, India, Senegal, and the Philippines tabling the motion to safeguard the remaining numbers of pangolin left in the wild.

While Asian population numbers are plummeting, the African pangolin population is next in line. One of the biggest seizures took place in July of this year, in Hong Kong with a record 7.3 tonnes of pangolin scales intercepted, carrying a street value of an estimated two million USD. Officers discovered the haul amongst a shipment of recycled plastic from Nigeria, in Central Africa, amounting to a horrifying eight to ten thousand animals.

Traditional medicine shop selling pangolin products. Pangolin poaching, Indonesia. photo: Paul Hilton for WildAid

One may well wonder what anybody would want with pangolin scales. Made of keratin, as are human hair and nails, the artichoke-shaped scales are hard and shiny, but are believed in Asia to have medicinal properties, while in Africa, they are used in witchcraft. Incidentally, there is no evidence to suggest any part of the pangolin benefits either medicine or magic.

Back in Laos, I meet Mr. Truong, a villager who lives close to highway 8, which links Laos with Thailand and Vietnam, and allows an easy passage via boat for illegal wildlife through to mainland China.

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Mr. Truong tells me of the occasions when he used to help stacking such boats with seven or eight hundred pangolins in plastic boxes, several times a year, always under cover of night. “But that was many years ago,” he concedes. “Now, you just don’t see those numbers anymore.”

In the course of my work for WildAid, I have witnessed the brutal supply chain and what happens to the pangolins before they reach people like Truong.

Earlier this year, a poacher in Kalimantan, Indonesia, allowed me to observe as he and his dogs ran off into the undergrowth in search of one of the last Sunda pangolins; a species listed as critically endangered on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. Several minutes later, the dogs surround a tree, yelping, and barking in excitement as they spot their target. The poacher reaches in, and grabs the pangolin. The animal, looking more like a large pinecone then any great prize, rolls itself up into a ball. It is the only defence this little animal has. The poacher then roughly throws the pangolin to the ground, letting the dogs work it over in their bloodlust. While the pangolin’s armour holds up well in the onslaught, it is ultimately no match for the fury of the dogs. In minutes, the pangolin is defeated, unceremoniously picked up, and dumped into a cloth bag.

At the other end of the supply chain are the businesses who fuel this cruel and needless industry. In Hanoi, Vietnam, I read the menu at a wildlife restaurant, which includes all manner of unusual fare: porcupine, civet cat, and cobras, but this restaurant takes pride in its specialty offering: pangolins. A whole page is dedicated to eating the species in myriad forms: stir fried pangolin, grilled pangolin, sauteed pangolin entrails, and, astoundingly, deep fried crispy pangolin scab. There is a high level of customer forethought needed when preparing to feast on a pangolin, however. “You have to place an order the day before,” according to the restaurateur. “I need to order. The truck comes through every afternoon at 4pm from Laos”.

Pangolin at the ” Save Vietnam’s Wildlife ” rescure centre, June 2015. Photo: Paul Hilton for WildAid

It’s a sharp juxtaposition when I realize that only a few miles across town is the headquarters of “Save Vietnam’s Wildlife”, a local NGO dedicated to saving pangolins through rehabilitation and release back into their natural habitat.

With demand for pangolin showing no sign of dropping off, organizations like this are never short of work. In April 2015, Wildlife Conservation Society’s crime unit received a tip off from an insider of a seafood trading company in Medan, North Sumatra of a huge shipment of both frozen and live pangolins about to transported to Vietnam. The bust – a significant coup in the fight to protect pangolins – netted 4,000 frozen pangolin, 96 of which were live, plus 150kg of scales.

Pangolin bust, Medan, Indonesia, April 2015. Over 4000 frozen, 97 live and 77 kg of scale where confiscated during a WCS and national police bust of a wildlife trade. Photo: Paul Hilton for WCS
Pangolin bust, Medan, Indonesia, April 2015. Over 4000 frozen, 97 live and 77 kg of scale where confiscated during a WCS and national police bust of a wildlife trade. Photo: Paul Hilton for WCS

This was Indonesia’s largest pangolin bust since 2008, where officers from the Indonesian National Police Criminal Investigation Bureau raided the warehouse of a suspected illegal wildlife trader in the city of Palembang in South Sumatra. There, they uncovered over 14 tonnes of pangolins, packed and frozen, ready for export. That was Indonesia’s largest ever seizure of pangolins; evidence of a concerted drive to stem the trade’s tide. Meanwhile, police are linking the arrests to two other seizures that year involving more than 23 tonnes of frozen pangolins by customs authorities in Vietnam, known to have originated from Indonesia.

Across the South China Sea, in Hong Kong, the supply chain is hiding in plain sight, in the many TCM stores that line the streets of Sheung Wan, in the island’s west. I alerted WildAid to what I was seeing. They then hired a private investigator, who, despite international restrictions in the trade of pangolins, found little trouble in purchasing their scales. One particular shop ( 裕興祥 ) quoted a price of  USD50 for 38 grams of cooked scales; just over USD20 of which will go the poacher.

Pangolin poaching, Indonesia. photo: Paul Hilton for WildAid
Pangolin poaching, Indonesia. photo: Paul Hilton for WildAid

The store owner, Tong Ren Tang, across the border in Shenzhen, also sells pangolin scales. Founded in 1669, Tong Ren Tang is highly influential as the world’s largest producer of TCM products. It strikes me that if major players such as Tong Ren Tang were to get on board with conservation efforts, species like the pangolin, would have a fighting chance.

A Sunda Pangolin ( Manis javanica ). Indonesia. Photo: Paul Hilton for WildAid

Failing that, we must hope that intervention from global monitors such as CITES can follow through to turn their pledges into action. As encouraging as it is to see heavyweight nations, like the U.S and India, throw their weight behind this year’s urgent initiative to protect pangolins, it is going to take much more than just Appendix 1 to save them. It’s going to need a seismic shift in demand, and a global refusal to watch yet another of our precious species vanish from our planet.

Paul Hilton is a wildlife trade consultant for WildAid. WildAid’s mission is to end the illegal wildlife trade in our lifetime. The strategy to achieving this goal is to reducing demand for such products, under the slogan, “When the Buying Stops, the Killing Can Too.”

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Comments

  1. Fred Bence
    South Africa
    October 1, 6:34 am

    Small mammals, birds and insects that breed in hollows in the ground will eventually all be listed as endangered. One of the main reasons is the use of herbicides all over the world. The heavy gases (1.3 heavier than normal air) released by spraying herbicides kill the young of the hollow dwellers. In Mpumalanga province of South Africa blue swallows are extinct of nearly there and honey bee colonies are less than 20% since year 2000.

  2. Fred Bence
    South Africa
    October 1, 6:00 am

    All smaller mammals, birds and insects that breed in hollows in the ground will eventually be endangered. One of the main reasons is herbicides. The young of these hollow dwellers are constantly overcome by the heavy gases (1.3 heavier than normal air) released by spraying herbicides. The population of honey bees is now in Mpumalanga province of South Africa less than 20% compared to year 2000.