Sales of its scales for traditional Chinese medicine, and its meat as a delicacy, have made the pangolin the world’s most trafficked non-human mammal. The unique creature’s survival was so threatened that in 2016, international commercial trade in pangolins was banned.
But despite those protections, a new report—shared exclusively with National Geographic— finds that law enforcement seizures of pangolin scales and meat reached an all-time high in 2019. Worldwide, more than 128 tons were intercepted—an increase of more than 200 percent from five years earlier.
The report, published Thursday by the Center for Advanced Defense Studies (C4ADS), a nonprofit that analyzes transnational security issues, provides new data and details that show the trade in African pangolins to Asia for traditional medicine continues to grow.
Often described as “scaly anteaters,” pangolins are the world’s only mammal with true scales, armored plates made of keratin. While these scales can protect pangolins even from the bite of a lion, they’re of no use against humans, the animal’s biggest threat. More than a million pangolins were trafficked between 2000 and 2014, according to the wildlife trade monitoring organization Traffic. (Read more: Poaching is pushing the shy, elusive pangolin to its doom.)
Pangolin experts have long known that the trade in Asia’s four pangolin species has been declining as they become harder to find. Instead, traffickers have turned to Africa’s four species to fill demand, with West and central Africa becoming major hubs. The C4ADS report draws on its own database of wildlife seizures and data from the World Customs Organization and a joint U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service-Zoological Society of London program to help to quantify the extent to which that region is linked to the illegal trade. The report highlights particular points along the supply chain where law enforcement might best concentrate their efforts.
“By co-opting existing bushmeat supply chains in Africa and obfuscating their illegal activity within the traditional Chinese medicine market, illicit actors are trafficking pangolin scales at increasingly alarming rates between Africa and Asia,” says Faith Hornor, a C4ADS program director and co-author of the report.
Last year, not only were more pangolin scales seized globally than in any other year for which data is available, but it also saw the biggest individual seizures of pangolin scales on record. Within a single week in April, Singapore intercepted a 14.2-ton shipment and a 14-ton shipment, estimated to be from more than 70,000 pangolins.
Both shipments came from Nigeria, which is the source of more than a quarter of all Africa-linked pangolin seizures with known origins from 2015 through 2019, C4ADS found.
West and central Africa also emerged as clear hot spots for trade. Nearly 90 percent of seized pangolin scales since 2015 originated or have transited through the region, the report says. Furthermore, the size of smuggled scale shipments from the region seems to be growing too, with the average weight increasing nearly tenfold to about 6,700 pounds.
This suggests the involvement of well-resourced criminal syndicates, the report says: “Paying for, collecting, and transporting large quantities of pangolin products entails great upfront investment and coordination.” It also likely means that traffickers aren’t concerned about interception by law enforcement as they move multiton shipments worth tens of millions of dollars.
Francis Tarla, coordinator for the Zoological Society of London’s pangolin program in Cameroon, has seen this shift in trafficking on the ground. Prices for pangolin scales on the black market have soared, Tarla said in an email, and “with the high prices, more talented and better organized traffickers entered into play and are prepared to take higher risks.” The combined influences of weak governance, ill-equipped law enforcement, high levels of corruption, a decrease in NGO investment, and a fall in the value of local exports such as petroleum enabled West and central Africa to emerge as a wildlife trafficking hotspot.
The increase in seizures could be a result of several factors. “Yes, the demand [for pangolins] and illegal trading were increasing a lot from 2015 to 2019,” Zhou Jinfeng, director of the nonprofit China Biodiversity Conservation and Green Development Foundation (CBCGDF), said in an email. But “law enforcement is also improved,” he said, leading to more frequent detection of smuggled shipments.
Chris Hamley, senior pangolin campaigner for the nonprofit Environmental Investigation Agency, says illegal trade may have increased because as smugglers have shifted from Asian pangolins to African ones, there was an existing supply chain they could co-opt. “In Africa, there was already the bushmeat trade chains that have pangolins, and so it was almost like a natural byproduct,” Hamley says.
Changes in China
China has long allowed the use of pangolin scales from its native species in traditional medicine preparations, but the Chinese pangolin was hunted to near-extinction in the country years ago. The loss of the native species, combined with a ban on the international trade in all Asian pangolins in 2000, meant that pharmaceutical companies, traditional medicine practitioners, and hospitals had to rely on stockpiles of scales amassed before the ban. Those stockpiles are privately owned by businesses, and each year, the provincial government issues quotas limiting how much can be sold in each region.
On average, the government has allowed about 29 tons—roughly equivalent to 73,000 pangolins—to be sold each year, according to a 2016 CBCGDF report. At that level, the stockpiles should have run out years ago, Zhou told National Geographic in 2019.
China’s National Forestry and Grassland Administration, which oversees wildlife, did not respond to requests for comment.
Other experts agree with Zhou. “It’s very hard to believe that the pharmaceutical companies are able to generate sufficient quantities of scales solely through this stockpile,” Hamley says. He says it’s “very likely” that illegal scales are making their way into stockpiles.
Data and research compiled by C4ADS lends support to this theory. Since 2015, more than 40 percent of the approximately 215 tons of pangolin scales confiscated in Asia were bound for or intercepted in China or Hong Kong, according to the C4ADS report. The quantity of scales seized from shipments in or headed to China and Hong Kong increased by more than 171 percent between 2015 and 2019. That volume indicates there’s huge demand, Hamley says.
China’s system of privately owned stockpiles and self-reported accounting has created a situation where illegal scales easily can be mixed in with legal scales—a “black market that is nested within the legal system,” the report says.
Recent policy changes suggest the Chinese government is moving to phase out the use of pangolin scales in traditional Chinese medicine.
In 2019, the government announced that pangolin scales would no longer be covered by state insurance. In June, for the first time in decades, the country’s list of approved traditional medicines did not include pangolin scales (although it did include patented medicines that contain pangolin). Also in June, the government extended further protections to pangolins, upgrading them to the same conservation level as tigers and giant pandas under China’s National Wildlife Protection Law. (Learn how you can help pangolins.)
Many experts remain doubtful that these measures will make a difference. Hamley calls the changes “a bit of a smokescreen.” Devin Thorne, a C4ADS senior analyst and report co-author, says those changes seem to have no immediate effect but still sees it as a “positive step.”
Zhou has some hope. “Till the end of 2019, the trade was increasing,” he said. But because of these changes, “we believe it will drop starting in 2020.”