SATURDAY is World Pangolin Day, a day dedicated to the pangolin, the scaly mammal that has been recognised as the most trafficked animal in the world.
For the first time, all four African and all four Asian pangolin species have been listed in Appendix 1 of the Convention of International Trade in Endangered Species (Cites) which gives them a complete international trade ban and importantly, all nations that are party to Cites are committed to put measures in place to curb and prohibit any poaching or trade in wild caught specimens.
Through the ages, pangolins have been eaten in Africa and in Asia. A strong belief that they have medicinal, magical and spiritual properties still exists. The highest rates of consumption are in China, where it was estimated that over the decade from 2004 to 2014, more than one million pangolins of both Asian and African species were traded.
These are all animals caught in the wild as no captive breeding programme has ever existed that can provide for commercial exploitation.
China has a population of over 1,4 billion people with high rates of pangolin consumption despite the visibly decreasing populations of Asian pangolins. With this knowledge, China has regulated pangolin trade for many years and the eating of pangolins has been illegal since 1989.
Strict regulation of the trade in pangolin scales has been in place since 2007. This regulation allowed for a legal trade of 26 600kg of pangolin scales annually, but the trade was limited to animal medicine wholesalers and traditional Chinese medicine retailers.
Companies that were legally allowed to trade were specifically registered with the government. However, research in China between June and July 2016, exposed a wide circle of unregulated and illegal activity. It was exposed that 35% of animal medicine wholesalers and 62% of medicine retail shops along with 153 online advertisers were illegally selling pangolin scales.
As far as could be identified, these scales were mostly from south-east Asian countries, the major sources being Malaysia, Indonesia and Thailand, and to a lesser extent illegally traded scales from African countries including Nigeria and Cameroon.
Before the current up-listing to Appendix 1 there had been legal imports of pangolin scales. Based on importer data, China reported nine imports involving pangolins between 2001 and 2014. Two of these records in 2014 indicated a total of 3 948 kg that came from Uganda and the Democratic Republic of Congo.
Apart from legal imports, around 16 000 kg of pangolin scales are reported to have been intercepted and confiscated on mainland China since 2007. However, research into consumption has indicated that even when adding the reported illegal pangolin scales to existing legal stocks in China, this amount could not have satisfied market demand.
Even before the up-listing of all pangolins to Appendix 1 a number of African countries recognised the difficulty of having a large consumer-driven market demand. With the depleted pangolin populations in Asia and the knowledge that Africa was being viewed as a source, heavy penalties for illegal capture and trade have been put in place as a deterrent.
Some of these, though not all actually enforced yet, include South Africa, which imposes a fine of US$70 000 or 10 years in jail. Nigeria - US$15 923 or three years in jail. Cameroon recently increased the fine from US$5 154 or 1 to 3 years to US$17 182. South Sudan – US$1 666 and 14 years in jail. Zimbabwe – US$500 or nine years in jail.
In 2015 courts in Zimbabwe convicted 47 people and jailed them for nine years each and in 2016 there were 42 convictions.
Zimbabwe has been a leader in Africa for punishing poaching of pangolins and they believe that this has been a deterrent as no large consignments have since been intercepted from that country.
At present there is no specific evidence of pangolins being sourced for international trade from Namibia although the animal is protected and hunting it can lead to a jail sentence. However, with consignments of other natural resources moving through the country's ports and borders, Namibian officials must be vigilant.
At every level, both the local and foreign public needs to be aware of the seriousness of any attempts to capture and trade in endangered species. Most importantly, awareness must be created of the extremely harsh punitive measures.
Aware – World Pangolin Day