Pangolins have long provided meat and traditional medicine for people in Africa and Asia. Recently, though, demand for pangolin scales—used mainly in China and Vietnam for a variety of ailments—has grown to the point that geographic boundaries are blurring. Vast quantities of them are now being smuggled from Africa to Asia, despite an international trade ban on all eight pangolin species that went into effect in 2017. A new report confirms that this illegal trade is only growing—and that organized international criminal networks that previously dealt predominantly with African elephant ivory are increasingly turning to pangolins.
“The level at which pangolins are being trafficked is huge compared to what it has been in the past,” says Sarah Stoner, director of intelligence at the Wildlife Justice Commission, an international foundation that aims to disrupt and help dismantle the illegal wildlife trade, and lead author of the report. “It’s on a completely different level.”
Pangolins have grabbed news headlines in recent days after researchers at South China Agricultural University said that the pangolin could be an intermediary host for the novel coronavirus. They have not published their findings, and the pangolin has not been confirmed as the animal from which the virus jumped to humans. It is, however, a working theory, and it puts increasing scrutiny on China and Vietnam's consumption of pangolins and the massive illegal trade in the species.
From 2016 to 2019, Stoner and her colleagues combed through open source records, including media stories, for reports of pangolin scale seizures by authorities in seaports and airports. They limited their analysis to seizures weighing 500 kilograms (1,100 pounds) or more, because shipments that large are most likely linked to organized crime. Over the four years, they documented 52 such cases representing more than 228 tons of pangolin scales. Pangolin species vary by weight and size, and most scale shipments were not identified by species, so the investigators were unable to estimate how many animals 228 tons represents. But they believe it’s likely at least in the tens of thousands. Nearly two-thirds of the seizures took place during the past two years, and their average weight increased from 2.4 tons in 2016 to 6.8 tons in 2019.
Stoner emphasizes that these data only capture what’s likely a fraction of the overall trade. “The way this information is gathered is very inconsistent,” she says. “We have to rely on a seizure happening, a country talking about the seizure, the seizure being publicly reported, and language barriers not getting in the way.”
Stoner’s team also found that shipments containing both ivory and pangolin scales doubled in number and tripled in volume between 2017 and 2018. After China banned its domestic ivory trade in 2018, the price of ivory plummeted, and Stoner suspects that wildlife criminals who formerly concentrated mainly on ivory are now exploiting pangolin scales to help maintain profit margins. “We used to see a higher proportion of ivory and a small amount of pangolin scales, but that’s completely shifted,” Stoner says. “Now we see a small amount of ivory and large amounts of pangolin scales.”
The Wildlife Justice Commission identified 27 countries and territories involved as sources, transits, or destinations for pangolin scale shipments. Six places in particular were linked to 94 percent of the overall contraband: China, Hong Kong, Vietnam, Singapore, Nigeria, and Democratic Republic of Congo. This confirms previous findings showing that as populations of Asian pangolins have fallen because of poaching, the supply side of the trade has largely shifted to Africa.
The team found that Nigeria in particular has become a global pangolin scale export hub, accounting for 55 percent of seizures between 2016 and 2019. On the demand side, China was the primary destination until 2018, when Vietnam took the lead. Links between criminal networks in Nigeria and Vietnam also seem to be strengthening, with a direct trafficking route between the two countries first appearing in May 2018 and continuing since then.
“Wildlife trade is truly global, and it’s a dynamic process,” says Vincent Nijman, a wildlife trade researcher at Oxford Brookes University, in the United Kingdom, who was not involved with the new report. “Globalization now means that your trade partner can be living on the other side of the world.”
Until demand for pangolins and their parts is curtailed, he adds—and as long as there’s profit to be made—traffickers will continue to find ways to meet that demand.
'Medicinal' uses of pangolin scales
Pangolin scales and parts are ingredients in nearly 500 prescriptions in traditional Chinese medicine, many of which date back centuries. The scales’ uses vary widely, from helping with anorexia, sores, and skin infections to treating infertility in women and promoting lactation. Pangolin scales are composed primarily of keratin, the same substance that makes up hair and fingernails, and no credible scientific evidence exists supporting their efficacy. Many people continue to believe in their use, however, and may benefit from placebo effects.
According to the Wildlife Justice Commission findings, Vietnam is now the biggest recipient of pangolin scales. Killing, trafficking, transporting, trading, storing, or selling pangolins, including for medicine, is illegal in Vietnam. Punishments vary, but violators may be subject to up to 15 years in prison or fined up to $645,000.
In China, where pangolins are strictly protected too, the government allows certain clinics and hospitals to sell pangolin scales for medicinal purposes. As of 2016, some 200 Chinese pharmaceutical companies were also allowed to manufacture more than 60 products containing pangolin scales, according to the China Food and Drug Administration’s online database. Officials say scales for medicinal use are distributed from a government stockpile, but China has never clarified how large the country’s stockpile is or where the scales came from. As the Wildlife Justice Commission reports, the medicinal system is likely being used to launder illegally obtained African pangolin scales into China’s legal domestic market.
A decision announced last August by the Chinese government may reduce demand for pangolin scales. As of this January, China’s national insurance program is no longer covering medicines containing pangolin products. China has also taken steps recently to crack down on the illegal pangolin trade. Last December, concluding a year-long investigation, Chinese authorities seized a shipment in Wenzhou, in Zhejiang province, of more than 25 tons of pangolin scales from Nigeria. Eighteen suspects were detained.
“The way in which authorities did this long-term, resource-intensive investigation was a perfect example of how we should tackle this problem,” Stoner says. “China’s doing really well, but more needs to happen, especially in places like Nigeria, Vietnam, Hong Kong, and Singapore.”
And now, the idea that pangolins could be vectors for current coronavirus outbreak may further dampen demand. “It would be a very interesting twist to the whole story, but I’d like to see more data,” Nijman says. “And if it is true, then I’ll keep my fingers crossed that it’ll work out for the better for pangolins, rather than making things worse.”