Can South Africa contain pangolin trafficking?

There are worrying signs that the illegal trade is becoming more organised, with professionals and government officials involved.

When asked about his favourite pangolin story, Francois Meyer, a pangolin release specialist, tells the story of Ally. After being rescued from the illegal trade, Ally – an expectant female Temminck’s ground pangolin – was reintroduced into the wild and gave birth to her pup, Pod.

The following year she had her second pup, Ray, named after pangolin expert Professor Ray Jansen from South Africa’s Tshwane University of Technology and the International Union for Conservation of Nature Species Survival Commission Pangolin Specialist Group.

Success stories like Ally’s are the culmination of efforts to ensure the survival of pangolins rescued from the illegal trade, and bring perpetrators to book.

Temminck’s ground pangolin, South Africa’s only indigenous species, is globally classified as vulnerable to extinction. These gentle, elusive creatures are hard to study, but research indicates that their numbers are declining, primarily due to illegal international trade. They are also threatened by habitat destruction and electric fences.

Pangolins have historically served as bushmeat in some African countries, with limited use of their scales for traditional cultural practices. Jansen says the cultural use of pangolins in South Africa is considered sustainable. The existential threat stems from the illegal trade that supplies Asian demand for pangolin scales used in traditional Chinese medicine.

South Africa already serves as an exit point for large shipments of multiple wildlife commodities

International trade in pangolins and their derivatives, like scales, is globally prohibited. Pangolins are protected under South African law, which bans hunting, catching, transporting, selling, buying, importing, exporting and being in possession of one without a permit.

However, prohibition has done little to mitigate the trade globally. The unsustainable consumption of Asian pangolins likely resulted in the increased sourcing of African species. Most shipments seized in Asia originate from Africa – particularly Central and Western Africa. After being killed, pangolins are stripped of their scales, which are shipped primarily from Nigerian ports, mainly destined for China and Vietnam. Seizures containing whole pangolins from Africa are rare, even though their meat is considered a delicacy in Asia.

South Africa is an outlier in this global trade due to limited pangolin seizures. Jansen told the ENACT organised crime project that from January to August 2023, around 30 pangolins were seized in the country – on par with previous years’ numbers.

Most of these confiscations were of live pangolins and were led by a task team comprising different law enforcement entities, often based on information received from the public. Seizures were largely carried out in Limpopo province, where pangolins are often sourced. In some cases, they were brought across the border from Mozambique, Botswana and Zimbabwe.

Jansen says the motivation for this cross-border movement could be to escape strictly imposed penalties in neighbouring countries, or due to the perception that South Africa has more buyers. That explains why many seizures have been made in economic hubs like Gauteng. Most arrests are of foreign nationals from countries like Zimbabwe and Mozambique.

Suspects increasingly own businesses and vehicles, and trade in other illegal commodities

Although these isolated incidents are incomparable to the multi-tonne seizures of containerised pangolin scales from Central and West Africa, experts say changing trends in South Africa may be cause for concern.

Jansen and Meyer agree that pangolin sales were initially largely opportunistic, carried out by impoverished community members trying to make fast money. Now, however, suspects often own businesses and vehicles and trade in other illegal commodities. Police and government officials have also been arrested. Another emerging trend is the increased seizure of pangolins and skins from the Northern Cape province and Namibia.

Rescuing pangolins from traffickers is only the first step in a series of efforts to care for seized pangolins and get them back into the wild. Pangolins are sensitive to stress during capture and trafficking, and they often suffer psychological effects and illnesses far worse than physical injuries.

After being confiscated by police, non-governmental organisations typically take over their care, which includes veterinary treatment and rehabilitation for those who survive. They then enter a period of facilitated, monitored release until they are completely rewilded.

Meyer says through trial and error, a group of passionate pangolin rescuers have developed best practices to get the animals from the trade back into the veld. They have trained counterparts, resulting in multiple institutions being able to care for rescued pangolins.

Since awareness of this illegal trade has grown, heavier sentences are increasingly being handed down. And while the number of seizures is stable, this was once the case for rhinos before illegal harvesting rapidly escalated. While most law enforcement efforts focus on seizing individual pangolins, it is possible that the animals are being transported, undetected, from South Africa on a larger scale.

A new trend is the increased seizure of pangolins and skins from the Northern Cape and Namibia

South Africa already serves as an exit point for large shipments of wildlife commodities such as ivory and abalone. But – as is typical of organised crime investigations – Jansen notes the difficulty in infiltrating the criminal networks responsible for large export operations.

If the trade is indeed becoming more organised, with professionals and government officials involved, it opens the door for corruption, as happened in the rhino horn and abalone trades. That could see pangolin smuggling growing and becoming entrenched in South Africa. Since the global illegal trade shows no indication of slowing down, the country should be prepared to prevent this expansion.

Meyer and Jansen highlight the urgency of teaching people about unique species like pangolins – keeping them alive in popular culture so that South Africa does not sell its natural resources to other countries before realising what has been lost.

There are effective informal working relationships between the various entities tackling the illicit trade and caring for pangolins. However, South Africa needs an intervention similar to the National Response Strategy to combat the booming illegal succulent trade. This would coordinate state and non-state actors’ activities and deal holistically with the pangolin trade, its causes and effects.

Dr Carina Bruwer, Senior Researcher, ENACT, ISS Pretoria

This article was first published by ENACT.

Image: © &Beyond

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Development partners
ENACT is funded by the European Union and implemented by the Institute for Security Studies in partnership with INTERPOL and the Global Initiative against Transnational Organized Crime. The ISS is grateful for support from the members of the ISS Partnership Forum: the Hanns Seidel Foundation, the European Union, the Open Society Foundations and the governments of Denmark, Ireland, the Netherlands, Norway and Sweden.
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