Dar es Salaam _ Traders – mostly from Asian countries – who had initially ventured into the lucrative ivory trade have somewhat abruptly turned to trading in a relatively rare species of mammal, the little-known pangolin.
Generally considered a delicacy in China and Vietnam, pangolins – also known as scaly anteaters – are nocturnal mammals that have large, protective keratin scales covering their skin; the only known mammals with this feature.
Pangolin scales are in great demand in Asia, according to conservationists. Arthur Tuda, a senior warden at the Mombasa Marine National Park and Reserve in Kenya, told The Citizen that poaching of wildlife – including pangolins – is a growing challenge worldwide. In his role as assistant director of the Coastal Conservation Region in Kenya, Tuda is in charge of five marine-protected areas (MPAs) and six terrestrial parks in the region. He says pangolins are largely being poached for their scales, but protecting these creatures is proving difficult. For example, the authorities recently took poachers of pangolins to court.
“But the court had no inkling of what the animal was -- and just as soon dismissed the case for what it felt was just a funny-looking animal,” Tuda said.
“It was a defeat for us that called for renewed efforts to ensure that the law recognizes the pangolin as a rare, endangered species -- and not see it as just a funny-looking animal that is not even widely known,” he said.
The fast-growing illicit trade of the animal is happening amid challenges that include a lack of data on existing pangolins, whose numbers in Africa are declining at a fast rate, Tuda said.
According to him, a majority of the poached pangolins were in the Tsavo and surrounding areas -- although the animals were also poached in other areas of Kenya and neighbouring countries.
Tuda says the primary threat to pangolins currently is poaching to feed the illicit international trade, predominantly for pangolin meat which is considered a delicacy in China and Vietnam and among the most expensive meats in Asia. Pangolin scales are used in making traditional medicines, while pangolin skin is used to make luxury leather items such as boots, belts, wallets -- most of which were sold in the US before they were banned in efforts to conserve pangolins.
This comes at a time when trafficking in ivory is declining, unlike in the past when it was flourishing and Tanzania was adversely impacted by the business, which had a huge, lucrative market in Asia.
Ivory poaching was a major challenge not only for Tanzania but globally. This, therefore, called for collective action by governments.
In due course of time and events, the authorities in Tanzania nabbed several illicit ivory traders, including Ms. Yang Fenglan, a Chinese businesswoman nicknamed ‘The Ivory Queen' who was eventually convicted in court and sentenced to 15 years imprisonment for smuggling hundreds of elephant tusks out of the country.
The Ivory Queen was accused together with two Tanzanian males of operating one of Africa’s biggest ivory-smuggling rings, responsible for smuggling at least $2.5 million-worth of elephant tusks ‘poached’ from some 400 elephants.
The International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) – a global environmental body – said the population of African elephants had fallen to 415,000 as a result of poaching -- a drop of 110,000 over the last ten years.
Commissioner of the Tanzania Wildlife Management Authority (TWMA), Wakibara James, says the illicit ivory trade was fueled by demand from China and East Asia, where ivory is used to make jewellery and other ornaments.
While this trade has been a huge concern for decades, in recent years elephant poaching has declined and poachers have discovered a new ‘gold’ in the form of pangolins.
Tanzania tries to tackle the problem
The assistant anti-poaching director at the Tanzania Ministry of Natural Resources and Tourism, Robert Mande, said pangolins are active at night and are, therefore, difficult to come across.
However the authorities in Morogoro recently intercepted about six tonnes of pangolin scales being smuggled out of the country by some Tanzanians, Ugandans and Rwandese, he said.
Subsequent to that, one person was arrested with live pangolins, while another was found with pangolin scales.
“Tanzania faces considerable poaching of different wildlife species, including pangolins; elephants for their tusks and meat; lions for their claws, fangs, skins and manes,” he said.
To tackle the poaching and trophy smuggling activities, the Tanzania government formed a national Anti-Poaching Unit (APU) as a special task force under the Ministry of Natural Resources and Tourism that is currently headed by Mande as chairman.
According to him, the unit has a presence in Special Zones for both protected and non-protected areas countrywide. The Zones are Serengeti, Salagire, Kilimanjaro/Mkomazi, Ruaha/Rungwe, Moyowosi, Katavi, Rumanyika, North Selous and South Selous.
“Our job is to be on the lookout for elements of organized crime and cross-cutting issues that arise in the ecosystem,” Mande said.
He explained that they are tasked with combating the illicit trade in wildlife and wildlife trophies, routinely making follows-up to each and every thing that happens in wildlife habitats, monitoring each and every movement – be it by wildlife or unauthorized persons.
All in all, the APU Task Force strives to ensure that it compiles accurate data on the happenings in both protected and non-protected areas, said Mande. It plans to launch an assessment programme soon that is intended to determine how much progress the task force has made in the war on poaching and the related illicit trading/smuggling.
Noting that poachers come up with new techniques from time and also use the country’s porous borders to smuggle their illicit collections out of the country, Mande said the APU is determined to foil such tactics as a matter of course.
Asian pangolin trade ban
The trade in and use of pangolins was legal in many countries of the world dating back centuries.
It was realized only quite recently that pangolins were being traded in such large numbers that they required special protection to prevent their extinction.
In the year 2000, a ban was imposed that made it illegal to trade internationally in any of the Asian pangolin species.
The ban has had two notable consequences: One is that the trade abruptly and devastatingly switched from the Asian pangolin species to the African pangolin species.
The trade in African pangolins was effectively regulated at the time, including international trade in the species. But the African pangolins were now not only traded within Africa but were also increasingly shipped to Asia.
Imposition of the trade ban on Asian pangolins also didn't stop the trade, it just meant that the mammals were increasingly hunted and traded illegally.
It is estimated that more than a million pangolins were trafficked from 2000 to 2013, ultimately giving pangolins the sad epithet of “the most heavily-trafficked wild mammal in the world."
Banner image: Giant ground pangolin (Smutsia gigantean) / Credit: David Brossard via Flickr