The Pangolin Crisis

First published in Sanctuary Asia, Vol. 40 No. 6, June 2020

In the April 2020 issue, Sanctuary readers were introduced to the most trafficked mammal in the world – the pangolin (‘Pangolins in Peril’) and the work of one NGO that is working to protect the species. In this issue, B.K. Sharma brings home the enormity of the situation and why 2019 was one of the worst years for pangolins.

Butchered in the thousands and smuggled in tons – seizure of consignment after consignment of scales and meat of pangolins worldwide has showed the true depth of the organised network of the global trade in pangolins. The volume of illicit trafficking clearly demonstrates that pangolin smuggling is not just an issue of species conservation but of an organised transnational crime valued at billions of dollars. It is estimated that up to 2,00,000 individuals are taken from the wild every year across Africa and Asia to meet the demand in China, Vietnam and many other countries.

In the run-up to World Pangolin Day on February 15, the Wildlife Justice Commission, an international foundation based in The Hague, Netherlands published a report Scaling Up: The Rapid Growth in the trafficking of Pangolin Scales (2016-19). The report was based on secondary sources and supplemented by independent investigations conducted by the Commission. It analysed seizures of pangolin scales weighing 500 or more kilogrammes as only such large consignments could possibly be linked to organised crime. The findings are devastating. In a four-year period (2016-19), the report recorded 52 seizures involving 206.4 tons of scales. This translated into tens of thousands of annihilated pangolins.

Scales seized from pangolin traffickers in Nigeria. Despite protection under the Endangered Species Act of Nigeria, which prohibits capture or local and international trade of the pangolin, over half of all seizures of the species since 2016 have been linked to this African country. DR Congo and Cameroon are the other two big suppliers. Image Courtesy: USAID Wildlife Asia.

Yet this accounts for only a fraction of the total volume of illegal trafficking. Twenty-seven countries were identified as source, transit and destination of the trade (see box below). Six countries, namely China, Vietnam, Singapore, Hong Kong, Nigeria and DR Congo are linked to 94 per cent of seizures. With the Asian pangolin population at an all-time low and shrinking further because of large-scale poaching, the supply source has shifted to African pangolins. Nigeria, with large Chinese expatriates, is the biggest consumer of pangolin meat and is the export hub of the international trade; DR Congo and Cameroon are the other two big suppliers. Since 2018, Vietnam has replaced China as the biggest recipient country, notwithstanding its strict penal provisions prescribing up to 15 years of imprisonment, if convicted. Nigeria-Singapore-Vietnam is the most significant smuggling sea route. After the ban of domestic ivory trade by China in 2018, ivory prices plummeted and hence international syndicates have switched over to the trade of pangolin scales to maintain their profits.

The Indian Scenario

The TRAFFIC study ‘Scale of Pangolin Trade in India’ revealed that during 2009-2017, scales and other body parts involving 5,772 pangolins were seized by law enforcement agencies in India. In total, the country recorded 90 seizures (83 were of scales, and seven were of meat and dead or live pangolins). Manipur reported the highest number with 32 seizures (36 per cent), followed by Tamil Nadu, which recorded nine seizures. Interestingly, Manipur did not record any seizure after 2015, indicating a shift in the trade route via Nepal to China or Vietnam. The study also revealed that during 2009-2013, most of the seizures took place in Northeast India. However, states like Maharashtra, Karnataka, Odisha and Tamil Nadu reported maximum seizures during 2013-17. The same trend continued thereafter.

Over the years, Odisha has emerged as one of the hot beds of the pangolin trade. Starting from an innocuous seizure of five kilogrammes of scales from one Samsuddin Khan at Takera check gate, Nayagarh district in June 2018, the Special Task Force (STF) of the Odisha Crime Branch unearthed a major racket extending to Myanmar and China. Local accomplices Allarakha Khan, Rabani Khan and Md Riyaz were arrested and antecedent verification revealed their involvement in a series of smuggling cases registered in the Pench Tiger Reserve of Seoni district and in Balaghat district, Madhya Pradesh. Samsuddin, a veteran wildlife trafficker, was arrested way back in 1996 for possession of 20 leopard skins. Investigation revealed that scales were being collected from poachers in Kalahandi, Kandhmal and Boudh districts of Odisha and also from Chhattisgarh, Madhya Pradesh and Maharashtra. The scales were being transported to Guwahati by train or truck or through couriers. This led to the arrest of Amir Hussain Lashkar of Silchar and his interrogation led the STF sleuths to arrest Lalthan alias Lalten Kunga of Mizoram, the main conduit in smuggling scales to Myanmar and then to China. Investigation also revealed that Lashkar and Lalthan were earlier arrested by Madhya Pradesh Forest officials in connection with seizures of wildlife products, including pangolin scales. The STF has now got a Letter Rogatory issued by the competent court, requesting Myanmar authorities to share information on four Burmese nationals who operate the extended link of the international racket.

Undivided Koraput district of Odisha has been a traditional hunting ground of poachers and traffickers. Two groups of 12 accused were arrested in December 2018 in Raygada and Malkangiri; two live pangolins were seized. In January 2019, Forest officials arrested eight accused in Malkangiri; a live pangolin was recovered. Nawarangpur Police arrested three persons and seized a pangolin in November 2019. Mayurbhanj, the northern most bordering district with its abundant wildlife in the Similipal Reserve Forest is also a favourite poaching ground of organised syndicates. STF of State Crime Branch busted a major trafficking ring in December 2018; it arrested four persons and seized a mother and baby pangolin duo, being offered for sale at an exorbitant amount. Seven residents of the district were arrested in November 2018 in West Midnapore district of Bengal with a dead pangolin inside a bag that had possibly died of asphyxia. It was being taken by car to Alipurduar of North Bengal, bordering Bhutan for delivery to unknown persons who would have taken it to China. In October 2019, forest officials arrested six poachers and seized scales of three pangolins in the outskirts of the Similipal Reserve.

Forest officials of Athagarh in Odisha busted a huge gang of pangolin smugglers in November 2019 and arrested more than 12 members of the organised network from different parts of the state. Investigations revealed that the accused were trading live pangolins and scales online by forming Whatsapp groups in which videos and photos were shared with potential customers, often based outside the country, and details communicated in codes to conceal the transactions.

Modus Operandi

Investigations have revealed that nomadic tribal communities like Sapera and Bawarias with their traditional hunting skills and excellent topographic knowledge are the initial links of the poaching chain. Forests of Maharashtra, Chhattisgarh, Madhya Pradesh, Odisha and Karnataka are the main procurement grounds of pangolins and scales, which are then sent to middlemen based in Kolkata and Siliguri in West Bengal, Moreh and Churachandrapur in Manipur, Guwahati and Silchar in Assam, Aizwal and Vairengte in Mizoram. Researchers with the London-based NGO, World Animal Protection and Oxford University, found that the Biate, Dimasa and Karbi tribes of Assam hunt pangolins for meat consumption and for scales for “substantial commercial gains” in the cities or to middlemen from cities. Current preferred trade routes are via Bengal to Nepal and Bhutan or via Manipur and Mizoram to Myanmar, with China being the ultimate destination. The other smuggling route is from Jammu, Himachal Pradesh, Uttarakhand and Haryana across the open border with Nepal, and then over new roads being built across the Himalayan mountains to China. Market preference, as evident from repeated seizures, has shifted to live pangolins, which fetch a high price, depending on the species and size. The trade is going online with Whatsapp groups to share photos, videos and other details communicated in code. Transportation takes place through truck, train and postal packets but instances of sellers carrying the contraband in cars to bordering areas have also surfaced. Members of organised syndicates across the borders in Myanmar and Nepal have been identified with names and cell numbers and series of Letter Rogatories as well as requests made according to Mutual Legal Assistance Treaties (MLAT) sent, but no concrete result for extradition or prosecution seem to have materialised so far.

The Legal Response

Acknowledging the phenomenal increase in trans-border smuggling, the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) upgraded all eight pangolin species to Appendix-1 at the Conference of Parties (COP) in South Africa in 2016, banning their trade completely. The COP adopted Resolution 17.10, urging all member countries to ensure strict enforcement control to address illegal trade, implement comprehensive national legislations and make provision for deterrent punishment. Many countries amended their national legislations to provide for stricter punishment for killing, trading or possessing pangolins or their body parts. Still, only just 17 pangolin range states have legislations that meet CITES requirements; 31 have legislations which fall far short of CITES stipulations and hence fail to act as effective deterrence.

A workshop being held in the Khao Yai National Park Training Centre, Thailand, to train police and customs officers, and USAID Asia’s Wildlife Quarantine Centre staff in safe, effective techniques on handling stressed or injured pangolins. The workshop also introduces them to protocol on pangolin rehabilitation and release into the wild. Image courtesy: USAID Wildlife Asia.

Among the source countries, Cameroon enacted a new legislation in 2017, which provides for prison up to three years and penalty of three to 10 million CFA Francs ($5,300 to $17,000) for pangolin killing or trafficking. The Endangered Species Act of Nigeria prohibits capture or local and international trade of pangolins and provides for a fine of US $1500 and/or imprisonment up to five years for the first offence. In DR Congo, anyone found guilty of killing, hurting, capturing or possessing a fully protected animal, including the pangolin, faces one to 10 years in prison and/or a fine of five to 10 million Congolese francs (US $5,500-11,000). Trafficking internationally carries a heftier punishment – five to 10 years in jail and/or fine of 25 to 100 million Congolese Francs (US $27,000-110,000). In Uganda, illegal possession of wildlife products, including of the pangolin, carries a penalty up to five years imprisonment and a fine of not less than one million Shillings or both.

Punishment, however, is lax in most of the transit countries, which have witnessed huge seizures of pangolin scales in the recent past. Singapore provides for two years in prison and a fine up to US $370,000, while Malaysia’s penal laws prescribe imprisonment up to three years and a fine of RM 50,000 to 100,000. Philippines has the least punishment with prison of up to three months, while Hong Kong recently amended its laws to prescribe tough punishment of jail term up to 10 years and fine up to HK $10 million, equivalent to US $1.3 million in case of conviction for illegal trading of Schedule-1 species, including the pangolin.

The destination countries, however, have amended their laws and now provide for fairly deterrent punishment regimes. In Vietnam, pangolins are protected by the Revised Penal Code of 2017 that took effect on January 1, 2018. Killing, trafficking, transporting, trading, storing, selling of endangered species’ products are illegal. Individual violators can be imprisoned up to 15 years or fined up to five billion Vietnamese Dong (US $213,328). Lao PDR promulgated a new Penal Code (May 2017, with proclamation on October 17, 2018), raising penalties to a maximum of LAK 10 million ($1252) and imprisonment terms of three months to five years for domestic wildlife trafficking offences. The Penal Code also stipulated imprisonment for five to 10 years and a fine triple the value of the item in question if the offender was part of transnational organised crime. Chinese laws are not publicised but some recent convictions in illegal pangolin trade resulted in sentencing of the accused to five years in prison.

In the subcontinent, the Indian Wildlife (Protection) Act, 1972, as amended, stipulates that an offence against the pangolin, which is a Schedule-1 species shall be punishable with imprisonment “which shall not be less than three years but may extend up to seven years and a fine up to Rs. 10,000/-.” In Nepal, the pangolin is listed as a protected species. Killing, poaching, transporting, selling or buying them is punishable with fine up to one million Nepalese Rupees (US $9,000) and/or imprisonment up to 15 years. Myanmar penal law provides that a person convicted of killing, hunting, wounding or trading in the pangolin or its body parts can be jailed for 3 to 10 years and fined up to one million Kyat (US $668).

The Way Ahead

Severity of statute, however, does not guarantee deterrence as organised networks, driven by strong market demand and lucrative profit margins, manage to find loopholes to escape punishments. Many impressive seizures are not followed either by meticulous investigation or painstaking prosecution, the two cornerstones of any conviction. Often couriers and middlemen are caught while the masterminds remain faceless and untraceable.

The Philippine pangolin or Palawan pangolin Manis culionensis, locally known as ‘balintong’, is an endemic found in the forests and grasslands of the Palawan province. Though it is moderately common within its limited range, the species is heavily hunted for its scales and meat. Image Courtesy: Gregg Yan

In this gloomy scenario, however, still there are some rays of hope for pangolins. The Interpol and World Customs Organisation launched ‘Operation Thunder ball’ involving 109 countries in June 2019, which succeeded in identifying trade routes and led to the seizure of half a tonne of pangolin scales in Nigeria. Nepal drew up a Pangolin Conservation Action Plan for 2018-2022, which aims to “secure the pangolin population against emerging threats and recovery in the wild... with focus on curbing poaching and control of the illegal trade of pangolins...” Wildlife conservation groups sued the federal administration in the U.S. by filing a lawsuit in the District Court of Columbia, seeking protection of pangolins under the Endangered Species Act, which will prohibit import and interstate sale of pangolin parts in the country, except for scientific and conservation purposes. Singapore, which witnessed the most spectacular seizures in 2019 has been urged by the international community to increase the maximum jail term for wildlife crime, which is two years and well below the regional average of eight years. In September 2019, two Malawian nationals were sentenced to three years in prison by a court in Lilongwe, the capital for possession and smuggling of pangolins. In July 2019, a Philippine court convicted three men for being in possession of 10 Philippine pangolins but the statutory penalty being light, the court sentenced each poacher to three months of imprisonment and a fine of 20,000 pesos, or about US $385. Believed to be the first conviction under the amended law, which guaranteed better protection to the pangolin, in May 2019, a national of mainland China was sentenced to 20 months imprisonment for smuggling 48 kg. of pangolin scales into Hong Kong. In the city’s second conviction, two men from mainland China were sentenced to 27 months of imprisonment in May 2020 for trafficking 100 kg. of pangolin scales from DR Congo.

Suspecting pangolins to be a possible host for spread of the novel coronavirus, COVID-19, China in February announced a permanent and comprehensive ban on trade of wild animals as food, a major step towards conserving wildlife, including the imperiled pangolin. There is however, a huge trade in pangolins, which is not related to consumption but to its medicinal use and conservationists argue that this shall continue through illegal trafficking and farming of pangolins; they have demanded for an unequivocal ban of wildlife trade and farming for any purpose whatsoever.

There is still a long way to go for the establishment of an effective legal and administrative regime in many destination countries, which alone can effectively protect pangolins from being mercilessly annihilated in source countries by organised transnational criminal networks.


Major Seizures in India

Maharashtra: In October 2018, Crime Branch officials arrested three persons and seized a live pangolin in Thane. Police arrested four accused and recovered a live pangolin in December 2018 in Raigarh. Pune police seized a live pangolin and four and a half kilogrammes of scales in two separate incidents in January 2019. Thane police seized 5.5 kg. of scales and arrested three persons in June 2019.

Madhya Pradesh: Forest officials seized five kilogrammes of scales and arrested a government employee in Balaghat in February 2018. A joint Forest and Police team arrested a person and seized four kilogrammes of scales in Bhopal in August 2019. The STF of MP Police seized live pangolins and scales from a quack in Panna who was selling the body parts promising increase in sexual potency.

Chhattisgarh: In Balrampur, seven persons were arrested in July 2018 and a pangolin was recovered.

West Bengal: A series of seizures were made in Siliguri. The STF of the Forest Department arrested four smugglers including a Nepalese citizen in February 2018 with six kilogrammes of scales, being taken to Nepal. Five Bhutanese were arrested in May 2019 with a dead pangolin. In November 2019, police arrested five Bhutanese and recovered a live pangolin concealed in a biscuit carton.

Assam: With authorities cracking down on rhino poachers, pangolin smuggling surged in the state. Pangolins (dead or alive) are trafficked to Yunnan province, China via Myanmar. The Wildlife Crime Control Bureau (WCCB) seized 10 live pangolins during 2016-19 in Assam and the adjoining states. In June 2019, an undercover agent reportedly had succeeded in fixing up a deal with smugglers to buy a live pangolin.

Chennai: Pangolin scales weighing 111 kg. along with other contraband wildlife articles seized from a godown; two persons arrested in February 2019.

Bengaluru: 10 seizures of scales and live pangolins in 2019.


International Seizures in 2019

Three high-value seizures were made of scales, believed to have been extracted from roughly 50,000 pangolins. On April 3, 2019, Singapore Customs seized 14.2 tons of scales, packed in 230 bags and falsely labeled as frozen beef in a 12 m. container. The consignment had originated from Nigeria and was destined to Vietnam. The next week, Customs announced a seizure of 14 tons of scales from a single consignment, falsely declared as Cassia seeds, originating from Nigeria and destined to Vietnam. The scales – from two African species, the white-bellied tree pangolin and giant ground pangolin, were valued at a few million dollars in the international market. In July, 11.9 tons of scales were seized along with 8.8 tons of elephant ivory. The container was labeled as timber and was destined to Vietnam from DR Congo. The scales are assessed to have been harvested from 2,000 giant ground pangolins.

Hong Kong: In January 2019, Hong Kong Customs seized 8.3 tons of pangolin scales along with 1,000 elephant tusks. The scales were possibly from 13,000 pangolins and valued at eight million dollars. The shipping consignment was labeled as frozen beef from Nigeria to Vietnam. The temperature of the container was kept low to obfuscate the smell of the scales. For the first time, organised network used a new modus operandi, namely, a process of ‘solidification’ in which they used ice bags and frozen meat to hide the distinctive smell of the scales.

Malaysia: Police recorded the biggest haul of contraband in February 2019, when they seized about 30 tons of pangolins and their scales in raids in major processing facilities, factories and warehouses in the Borneo State of Sabah. Eighteen boxes of frozen pangolins in refrigerated containers along with 572 frozen pangolins, 61 live pangolins in cages and 361 kg. of scales were seized, proving that Sabah was a major transit point in the illegal trade of pangolins from Africa to Asia.

China: In December 2019, Customs seized over 25 tons of scales in the eastern city of Wenzhou and detained 18 suspects. Originating from Africa, the scales were smuggled in batches into China from Busan in South Korea. Considered the largest haul of contraband wildlife in recent years, the modus operandi involved wrapping of scales in layers of ginger spices, making them almost impossible to be detected during inspection.

Vietnam: A major destination of the illegal trade, it recorded huge seizures of scales throughout the year. In March 2019, eight tons of scales were seized in the northern port of Hai Phong. In May, police seized 5.3 tons of scales hidden in a shipment from Nigeria. The scales were stuffed in 151 sacks and bags of raw cashew nuts to avoid detection. In June, Vietnam police seized four tons of scales along with 3.5 tons of elephant ivory from a container at Hai Phong. The scales had been stuffed inside steel barrels mixed with others containing tar to avoid detection. In December, Customs seized three containers from Nigeria that concealed 1.7 tons of scales, falsely declared as high-end lumber.

Africa: The major source of brutal killing and organised smuggling recorded significant seizures of scales. In January 2019, Uganda made a major seizure of pangolin scales and arrested two Vietnamese nationals. Cameroon Police apprehended four traffickers in March and recovered huge quantities of scales, believed to have been harvested from 3,000 pangolins. In January 2020, Customs in Nigeria seized a staggering 9.5 ton shipment of poached pangolins from an abandoned warehouse in Lagos, roughly representing 10,000 dead pangolins.



B.K. Sharma is a Senior Indian Police Service (IPS) officer of Odisha cadre with 34 years of distinguished service who has worked in CBI as SP and DIG and in the State as Commissioner of Police, Bhubaneswar-Cuttack, Head of Crime Branch and Director General of Police (Head of Police Force).

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