Scaling back a scaly threat

Signatories of CITES (Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora) agreed to move all eight species of pangolin into Appendix I, up from the previous status of Appendix II, at the last Conference of the Parties (CoP 17) held in Johannesburg, South Africa. The move is an acknowledgment of the fact that the species of anteater now faces a critical risk of extinction due to a rise in poaching and higher demand from consumers.

The extent of the illegal activities is not known, but a 2014 study by the International Union for Conservation of Nature found that more than a million pangolins, including Asian and African species, have been poached and illegally traded globally over the past decade to satisfy demand from consumers in Asia, particularly China.

James Compton, senior director of TRAFFIC’s Asian regional office, said pangolins are the most trafficked mammal in the world, adding that 20 years ago he worked in Vietnam and found a smuggling route from Vietnam and Laos to China and recently found another smuggling route from Africa to the main markets in China.

He said Thailand remains an important regional gateway for shipping pangolins from neighbouring countries and pangolin scales from Africa via air, sea and land.

Despite many shipments being seized, he expressed disappointment that there have been no in-depth investigations into who is behind the shipments nor the suppliers, and there is no money trail to detect who organised the crime.

“The victims of wildlife crime are the animals living in the forest, not the culprits who make good money from this illegal business,” he said, adding that cooperation among local officials, Interpol and international agencies should be strengthened to find the mastermind, not the middlemen.

He said consumers are the key to the protection and preservation of wildlife and plants in the forest, especially pangolins which are widely hunted for medicine. “Would it be possible to find other alternatives?” he asked.

According to a report titled “An Overview of Pangolin Trade in China”, released by TRAFFIC in September last year, the number of traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) retail shops selling pangolin scales dropped from 82% in 2006-07 to 62% in 2016.

Meanwhile, the percentage of stalls in the TCM wholesale market selling scales increased from 12.5% in 2006-07 to 35% in 2016, indicating that the illegal trade in pangolin scales is still on going in China’s markets.

However, the report said that a positive change had been seen in terms of pangolin meat consumption. Two restaurants among the survey clearly stated that pangolin meat was offered and nine restaurants had pangolin meat for sale in 2006-07, but that had dropped to zero in 2016.

Based on the report, the three largest source countries in terms of the number of pangolin seizures were Vietnam (25%), Myanmar (10%) and Nigeria (4%). In terms of volume, Malaysia, Indonesia and Vietnam were revealed as the major source countries for dead pangolins, while African countries remain the top suppliers of pangolin scales — chiefly Nigeria (11.3 tonnes) and Cameroon (6.34 tonnes).

Somkiat Soontornpitakkool, director of the Division of Wild Fauna and Flora Protection at the Department of National Parks, Wildlife and Plant Conservation, said although the animals are found in forests in the North and South, Thailand is not the main habitat of the pangolin.

Little is known about the species, which is why the number of pangolins seized from confiscations is very small at less than 10% and they often die under the supervision of the wildlife breeding centre units. A major challenge for the department is finding ways to keep the animals alive and well in captivity.

Mr Somkiat said the department is aware that the world community has expressed strong concerns about pangolin smuggling, with Thailand identified as a major transit hub in the region.

He said the department is now working in a more aggressive way to suppress the illegal activity by strengthening cooperation with related agencies such as the military, the police and local authorities to stop or intercept suspected shipments from southern Thailand.

“We will pursue all means to have Thailand lifted from CITES lists. We have put a lot of effort into dealing with the illegal ivory trade and met with success. We will not repeat such cases,” he said.

CITES previously focused on Thailand as a hub for the illegal African ivory trade and listed the country as a “primary concern”, leading the government to launch many plans and measures to deal with the problem, including legislation clamping down on the possession of ivory.

CITES later upgraded the country to a “secondary concern”, creating a more lax attitude in the country.

Mr Somkiat said the department will work more closely with Interpol under the Control Delivery programme, which means that suspected shipments might be allowed continue to their destination and arrests will be made at the destination point to find the major culprits who can be linked to international illegal traders.

According to the latest figures compiled by the department, the authorities confiscated 127 pangolins and 1,093 kilogrammes of pangolin scales at Suvarnabhumi airport between January and July this year.

Meanwhile, the three-year record of Padang Besar checkpoint in Songkhla province found 208 pangolins and 2.1kg of pangolin scales.

big money: A total of 136 pangolins along with pangolin scales weighing 450 kilogrammes, worth more than 2.5 million baht, were impounded by customs authorities in Prachuap Khiri Khan’s Pran Buri district. PHOTO: Patipat Janthong

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