In March 2018, a Chinese national living in Nigeria was arrested for partaking in pangolin trade. The Nigeria Customs Services (NCS) took Li Chaomin into custody after uncovering 2 tonnes of pangolin scales and 218 elephant tusks in his Lagos apartment.
In what was a space of 2 weeks, Chaomin was the second Chinese citizen to be apprehended for an act that endangers the existence of the scaled mammal globally.
Pangolins may very well be the missing link for the transmission of the novel coronavirus from bats to humans. SARS-CoV-2, previously named 2019-nCoV—the disease responsible for nearly 2 million infections and 119,686 deaths—is zoonotic.
That means, the virus originated in animals and jumped to humans. More evidence has sufficed to suggest that pangolins are likelier hosts than snakes for the pandemic.
One study found that lung samples of Malayan pangolins were highly similar to SARS-CoV-2. The two viruses shared 91 percent of their genetic sequence. “There is a particularly strong similarity between the spike proteins of these two viruses. The spike protein, which is on the surface of a coronavirus, is used by the virus to get into an animal cell,” it said.
Nevertheless, pangolins have been in the spotlight for quite some time. An endangered species, the scaly anteaters have laws protecting them from being hunted and traded.
This is the more reason conservationists believe the COVID-19 scare will give the animal a break from extinction. But what’s on ground suggests that pangolin trade might continue despite the raging epidemic.
After his arrest, Chaomin claimed he had a permit from the Chinese government to import pangolins. However, he was reportedly unable to obtain export permission from the Nigerian authorities. Subsequently, the trader resorted to smuggling pangolin scales to meet orders placed by Chinese customers.
A takeaway from Chaomin’s episode is: Africa and China have a huge role to play in the trade of the rather shy animal. Nigeria has emerged as a major trading hub for pangolin trafficking. And, it’s no surprise how the coronavirus broke out from Wuhan—another major zone for the species’ trade and consumption.
Of the eight species of pangolins, four each are in Africa and Asia. The giant ground pangolin (Smutsia gigantea), black-bellied tree pangolin (Phataginus tetradactyla) and white-bellied tree pangolin (P. tricuspis) are found across West Africa, including Nigeria. The fourth African species, Temminck’s ground pangolin (S. temminckii), ranges across Southern and Central Africa.
Pangolin trade persists in Nigeria due to the porosity of its borders and the lack of efficient law enforcement. In Epe—a town and Local Government Area in Lagos State—pangolin traders have been in business for the last 6 years. The strong demand and high prices are garnered from Chinese expatriates and locals.
For these traders, pangolin trade is good business, partly because of the scarcity of employment opportunities in the country. Hunters also acknowledge that the business grows more lucrative as the population of the animal dwindles in the nearby forests. More so, about 70 percent of them claim being unaware or unconcerned of the laws protecting the creature.
In the same way, pangolin trade in Gabon is illegal. But rather than putting a stop to it, traders are banking on stealthier measures, all of which increases the selling price of both the scales and the carcasses.
In this West African country, Chinese expats are also the sellers’ biggest customers. Even with the advent of coronavirus, the business appears to remain bullish.
Considered the most-trafficked animal on earth, between 400,000 and 2.7 million of the animals are hunted each year in Central African forests. The animal is a particularly easy one to capture. When it senses danger, it curls up into a ball, and can then be picked, bagged or killed instantly.
Richard Thomas is the Head of Communications at TRAFFIC—a leading non-governmental organisation working globally on trade in wild animals and plants. He believes that there are a number of factors that may affect how well pangolin trade laws can be enforced.
Particularly, it’s a matter of whether there are sufficient resources available to implement them and if enforcement efforts are undermined by factors like corruption.
“A law on paper is only as good as it is enforced in the field. Probably the biggest factor is a lack of adequate resources available to implement appropriate enforcement measures,” Thomas told WeeTracker.
In this context, it’s easy for trafficking syndicates to organize networks of local middlemen who work with local hunters and bushmeat traders. They secure pangolins destined for Asian markets but collected first in Nigeria.
TRAFFIC’s latest report on the matter estimates that about 895,000 pangolins had been smuggled between 2000 and 2019 in Southeast Asia. However, over 96,000 kilograms (210,000 pounds) of the creatures’ scales were seized in Malaysia, Singapore and Vietnam between 2017 and 2019 alone.
Skating On Razor’s Edge
According to UNODC’s 2016 World Wildlife Crime Report, traffickers can get as much as USD 250 for the scales from one pangolin in Asian markets. Chinese buyers can pay anything between USD 3 and USD 20 for one pangolin. For local bushmeat traders in different parts for Africa, for instance, that’s a relative fortune.
The lucrativity of the business is an inspiration for hunters and traders alike to apply seemingly smarter tactics. In Nigeria, an increasing number of well-off people are joining the trafficking bandwagon to make some bucks. As such, new finance for hunting, money and connections are increasingly thwarting enforcement.
Lisa Hywood is the CEO & Founder of the Tikki Hywood Foundation—a global awareness and sound conservation practice to the plight of lesser-known and endangered animals.
She says those dealing and practicing this trade go to extra lengths to make sure that they do not get caught. This is a risky criminal operation for which they have developed systems to evade the law.
“The pangolin was Uplisted at CITES in 2017 from Appendix II to Appendix I, which means that in Africa it is illegal to hunt or harvest pangolin. The most proactive country in Africa to enforce their law is Zimbabwe. If found guilty of illegal possession of a pangolin, there is a mandatory sentence of 9 years with a USD 5 K fine,” she told WeeTracker.
Laws Versus Bucks
South Africa has improved with regards to their law enforcement and sentencing in the last two years. Sadly the rest of Africa, including Nigeria, is very slow in prosecuting this crime within their countries. For example, South Sudan has a sentence of 14 years if found in possession of a pangolin but has yet to ever enforce that.
TRAFFIC’s Richard Thomas says: “Zimbabwe has one of the toughest laws protecting pangolins: I understand there’s a minimum 9-year jail term for anyone convicted of trading in these animals—that level of penalty is a significant deterrent. I don’t know about other countries in the region, although I understand Malawi has recently amended its legislation and increased penalties”.
But these laws are only as serious as the money being made from pangolin smuggles. It’s difficult to know the exact money is made as it’s all black market and underground.
But poachers are likely to be carrying most of the risk but securing very little for the risk they are taking. The middlemen traders and the kingpins orchestrating the trade will be making the most from it.
While all four African species of pangolin are present in the CAR and officially protected, the law is very hard to enforce. Two-thirds of the country are still in the hands of armed groups following a succession of conflicts. Pangolins, unlike elephants, are also hard to track, which makes watchdogs have to rely on seizures alone.
Becoming Less Obvious
Across Africa, state and federal-level law enforcement proves poor because the agencies tasked lack the required means—funding inclusive. Information about trafficking actors is hard to come by, as per the routes and volumes involved. The niche has been protected only as much as the pangolin itself.
Technology, on the other hand, is playing a huge role in making the laws hard to enforce. Traffickers are increasingly using digital means to connect to more pangolin markets. They are as well able to communicate across great distances in ways previously impossible. They showcase the contraband on online platforms using aliases.
Through online platforms, traffickers use codes and signs only understood by the sector’s insiders. There is fluidity of the trade and the ease with which its products, networks and traffickers can move across borders. Preventive approaches are not flexible enough to match that nature of the trade.
As Lisa Hywood points out, ignorance is also a barrier. Not many people are aware that pangolin trade laws exist or whether they are an endangered species. The publicity is limited, especially in Nigeria, So, it’s no wonder why the country is yet to enact robust pangolin laws to protect the species and stop coronavirus.
Featured Image: China Dialogue