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The Bizarrely Prominent World of Pangolin Trafficking

According to reporting from the BBC, an undercover sting operation by the Wildlife Justice Commission (WJC) led to the arrest of three Vietnamese in connection with pangolin trafficking in Nigeria May 12, 2022.


If someone is unfamiliar with the different species of this animal, they could be forgiven as they’re an obscure one. Despite being unknown to most of the general public though, the pangolin is the most trafficked animal in the world.


According to the WJC the three suspects, Phan Chi, Phan Quan and Duong Thang,  in the sting were arrested in connection to trafficking 7.1 tons of pangolin scales, as well as over 1,800 pounds of elephant ivory. According to one of the people involved in the operation, one of the three had also contacted them about getting 20 tons of scales shipped to Vietnam.


The animals have always been a target for trafficking, but since 2010 the volume in which these creatures have been poached has increased to staggering levels. According to the World Wildlife Fund (WWF), a large reason for this is the increase in demand for pangolin scales, whereas before the animal was primarily hunted for its meat.


In a 2017 report conducted by TRAFFIC and the University of Adelaide, Australia, a wildlife trade monitoring network, found that between 2010 and 2015 that there were over 1,200 seizures involving pangolin trafficking across the world. In these seizures, over 60 tons of pangolin scales were seized, as well as over 22 tons of body parts and over 44,000 whole animals.


According to the report, there were 157 different trafficking routes being used by poachers to ship their ill gotten goods across 67 countries that was increasing by an average of 27 new routes per year. China, the U.S. and Vietnam were involved in the most incidents, respectively, with China and the U.S. having more incidents together than the rest of the top ten combined.


The numbers are also seemingly on the rise with the WWF estimating that of the over 1 million pangolins trafficked between 2010 and 2020; about 195,000 of those were moved in 2019 alone. Between 2015 and 2021, 330 tons of pangolin materials and animals were seized in Asia alone.


Furthermore, much of this data is based around seizures and verified incidents. Seizures where there weren't proper records kept, as well as shipments which go uncaught, are not included in the overall number.


While Asia makes up a significant portion of the illegal trade, particularly South East Asia, the buying and selling of pangolins is also prominent in other portions of the world. The United States gets more than its fair share of scales while Nigeria is a hub for the trade of African pangolins. India has also seen a rise in poaching and trade.


According to the WWF a large driver in the increase in not only pangolin trafficking but illegal animal trafficking as a whole has been exacerbated by the internet's increasing importance in daily life. This gives traffickers access to a wider array of buyers across the world with a lower risk than in previous decades.


In 2021 there was a noticeable dip in trafficking incidents involving pangolins, though this is attributed more to the COVID-19 pandemic shutdowns than a decrease in poaching. According to Steve Cormandy, who led the WJC sting, the pandemic was also what allowed them to get into contact with traffickers desperate to offload their shipments.


According to Cormandy and the WJC, the arrest of the Vietnamese traffickers, who were found guilty on July 19, is a major step in fighting pangolin trafficking. Cormac told the BBC that in Africa the focus has primarily been on poachers and not those higher up in the operation, calling the three traffickers “the top of the pyramid.”


Chi, Phan and Thang each received six year sentences after pleading guilty and paying fines. Additionally, the sting resulted in the Nigerian compound of West African trafficker Morybinet Berete being raided, leading to the arrest of three individuals and the seizure of over 7 tons of pangolin scales. Berete was not caught, and has been on the run since 2021.


Pangolins are a family of mammals who count eight species among them, half found in Asia and half found in sub-saharan Africa. All eight of these species are on the endangered animal list, with three of them being critically endangered.


In both Asia and Africa, the materials from the animal are both highly valued for monetary and medicinal purposes. In Vietnam and China pangolin is considered a delicacy, while in Ghana it is a popular source of bushmeat. In both regions the animals are also used in traditional medicine, with ground pangolin scales being believed to cure asthma and cancer in parts of East Asia.


The pangolin population also suffered another blow due to the COVID-19 pandemic, being speculated early on as a vector for human infection due to the illicit trade. While this was later proven to be unlikely, this speculation led to mass slaughter of the animals, further endangering them.


All species of  pangolins are listed under Appendix I of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES), an international treaty meant to protect endangered animals from illicit trade. International trade of pangolins is banned unless the trader has a permit and the trade is for non-commercial purposes.

Legal ramifications for the poaching and trafficking of endangered animals varies depending on where the incident took place and where the buyers and sellers are located. For example, in Botswana the poaching of rhinos can carry a 15 year prison sentence or a fine of 100,000 BWP, or $10,000 U.S.


Despite this, some countries and territories have been criticized for not having harsh enough deterrents in place for traffickers. While maximum sentences for trafficking of endangered animals are quite high in several Asian countries, actual sentencing has often been found to be lax, with minimum suspended sentences and low fines often meaning up to 50% of those caught engaging in trafficking serving no jail time.

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