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New research details complexity of growing risks to endangered pangolins

Vectors for illegal trafficking
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Two sacks filled with pangolin scales
Seized pangolin scales in Nigeria. Photo credit: © Charles A. Emogor

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A dietary delicacy in some countries in Africa and Asia, the pangolin is also prized for its scales, which are used in folk and traditional remedies to treat various ailments.

Although pangolins are protected by international laws under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Flora and Fauna (CITES), estimates indicate that more than a million pangolins have been illegally trafficked worldwide since 2013.

Research published recently in the journal Biological Conservation reveals that Nigeria has become a central intercontinental hub through which the scales of an estimated 799,300 pangolins have been shipped en route to Asia between 2010 and September 2020.

Although Nigeria is a party to CITES and has other national legislation designed to prevent illegal commercial trade in endangered species, the country has been involved in more reported pangolin trafficking incidents than any other African country.

Illegal wildlife trade diminishes animal populations, threatens food security and livelihoods in local communities, endangers public health through the spread of zoonotic diseases, and undermines the rule of law due to organized criminal networks and institutional corruption, said Daniel Ingram, a postdoctoral researcher at Britain’s University of Stirling, member of the IUCN Pangolin Specialist Group, and an author on the paper.

Of the eight pangolin species, four occur in Africa, and four occur in Asia. All are listed as vulnerable, endangered or critically endangered on the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List of Threatened Species.

“By putting patterns of pangolin trafficking in Nigeria under scrutiny, policies can be developed to enhance law enforcement to protect wild species threated by trans-national trade,” Ingram said, adding that illegal trade in pangolins during the study timeframe involved 21 other countries, including nine in Africa, nine in Asia and three in Europe.

The team of researchers — also from the University of Cambridge, Center for International Forestry Research and World Agroforestry (CIFOR-ICRAF), University of Oxford and the Wildlife Conservation Society’s Nigeria Program — analyzed three data types, including pangolin seizure records and results of interviews, to reach their findings.

They observed that Nigeria’s law enforcement efforts to tackle pangolin trafficking increased from 2017.

“Our study demonstrates the complexity of the global illegal pangolin trade and amplifies the need for concerted conservation efforts and stronger law enforcement, backed by inspection equipment, inspection officers and sniffer dogs at seaports and borders,” Ingram said.

“COVID-19 pandemic travel restrictions likely reduced trafficking in 2020, but activities have already resumed.”

Two live arboreal pangolins. Photo credit: © Franklin T. Simo

LOCAL TRADE

In addition to demand for scales from Asia, in parts of West and Central Africa, pangolin meat is still consumed as part of rural subsistence diets. 

They can also be found in urban bushmeat markets in Cameroon (and elsewhere in the region) where they are consumed as a luxury, despite being illegal in many cases, said Ingram, who is a senior author on a new research paper published in the African Journal of Ecology  and released to coincide with World Pangolin Day on Saturday. 

All three species of pangolin found in Cameroon were available in the market. Most were the arboreal, white-bellied pangolin (Phataginus tricuspis), but pieces of the endangered giant pangolin (Smutsia gigantea) were also found, according to the research, which was a collaboration between researchers at the Universities of Stirling, Cameroon’s Yaoundé I, Britain’s St. Andrews, and Denmark’s Aalborg, the Zoological Society of London – Cameroon, and the Central Africa Bushmeat Action Group.

Three arboreal pangolins, Bamako Market, Mali. Photo credit: © Ian B. Edwards

By monitoring pangolin trade, the authors observed a decline in the average daily number of arboreal pangolins available in 2017 compared to 2020.

Despite this, during surveys undertaken over a six-month period in 2020 — during the height of COVID-19 lockdowns worldwide — arboreal pangolins were continually available across the survey period, and most pangolins were alive.

Despite COVID-19 and national bans banning the trade of pangolins, they were still regularly and openly offered for sale in the capital city, Ingram said. 

REMEDIES AND FETISHES

Pangolins are used in some traditional remedies and ritual practices in West Africa, including in Ghana, Nigeria, Benin, but little is known about the ways in which pangolins are traditionally used in other West African countries.

In a second paper published in the African Journal of Ecology on World Pangolin Day, Ingram shares results collated from a vast range of sources, including historical reports, legal documents, and interviews with wildlife experts and traditional hunters in Mali.

Pangolins have been available on the fetish market in the country’s capital Bamako — where wild animal body parts are sourced for traditional remedies and ritual practices — at least in 2008.

Authors suggest that more research is needed to understand whether these practices still occur.

“Pangolins also featured in Malian ritual arts, where they are depicted in the tyiwara headdresses of the southern region from around 1980, suggesting some level of cultural significance,” Ingram said. 

“Evidence from several sources suggest that at least two species of pangolin may occur in the far south of Mali, currently not listed on the IUCN Red List.”

The research was conducted by researchers affiliated to the Universities of Stirling, Linfield, Southern New Hampshire in the United States, and the École Pratique des Hautes Études in France.

 
For more information on this topic, please contact Daniel Ingram at daniel.ingram@stir.ac.uk.
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