Malaysia is being used as a transit point for pangolins, especially for their scales, according to a latest report by Traffic, the wildlife trade monitoring network.

The report, entitled “Seizures of African pangolin scales in Malaysia in 2017”, stated that between May and August 2017, there were six confirmed seizures of African pangolin scales in Malaysia totalling 6,695kg.

Out of the six seizures, five took place at Kuala Lumpur International Airport air cargo terminal while one was at Sepanggar Port in Kota Kinabalu, Sabah.

These transactions involved seven export and transit countries along the trade chains – Democratic Republic of Congo, Ethiopia, Ghana, Kenya, Nigeria, Turkey and the United Arab Emirates.

In the five seizures involving air transportation, Malaysia was the reported end destination. In late July 2017, the Ghanaian authorities also reportedly arrested three members of a wildlife trafficking syndicate who admitted to smuggling pangolin scales to Malaysia.

In July 2017, Sabah Customs reported the seizure of eight tonnes of pangolin scales at Sepanggar Port in Kota Kinabalu, Malaysia’s largest pangolin scales seizure to date.

pangolin scales

Customs officials showing pangolin scales seized at the cargo terminal of Kuala Lumpur International Airport (KLIA) in June. Photo: The Star/ S.S. Kanesan

Although the origin of the shipment has not been made public, authorities have not ruled out that this shipment could have originated from the African continent. If confirmed as such, Malaysia would be implicated in a minimum of 14,694 kg of African pangolin scales from seven shipments within a four-month period.

More importantly, it points to the fact that Sepanggar Port in Sabah could potentially emerge as an important transit point for wildlife commodities from Africa being smuggled through Malaysia.

Smugglers diversifying?

“The primary reason for concern is the volume involved. The two large seizures at the Sepanggar Port collectively represent a minimum of 13 tonnes of pangolin scales within a one-month period,” said Kanitha Krishnasamy, Traffic’s acting regional director.

“The emergence of a new location of smuggling and seizure could imply a number of things including, for instance, traffickers trying to diversify and expand the points of entry and exit of their smuggled goods to evade detection.”

pangolin scales

It’s crucial to keep disrupting the trafficking of pangolins and to convict the smugglers, says Kanitha. Photo: Filepic

Besides the cases described above, at least four other significant seizures of African pangolin scales have taken place since 2014 involving Malaysia as part of the trade chain. These collectively amounted to more than eight tonnes of scales.

These incidents highlight the fact that Malaysia is being used as a transit point for pangolins, adding another group of CITES Appendix I-listed species being shipped from Africa through Malaysia.

“It is absolutely imperative that investigations uncover the parties involved – including local logistics companies for both the Sabah pangolin scale shipments – to ensure that Malaysia is not being exploited as a point of transit, consolidation or distribution of smuggled wildlife or its parts. Coordination with countries from the point of export and final destination is also critical to help unravel the connections in the entire trade chain,” said Kanitha.

“We also need to put an end to the perception by traffickers that wildlife or their parts and products can be routed through Malaysia. This can only be done with continued vigilance, seizures of such shipments to disrupt their operations and the successful conviction of those involved,” she said.

Due to the international nature of these smuggling efforts, the report also urged increased international co-operation to combat the trade and to take the opportunity to make full use of the CITES partnership and obligations.

“Collaboration between airlines and logistics companies and law enforcement agencies such as Customs and Immigration is necessary as they hold key intelligence on the syndicates moving pangolin scales across continents and can greatly aid in any investigations.

“Ultimately, through collaborative efforts that lead both to seizures and to the arrest and successful prosecution of criminals, Malaysia can remove itself from being one of the transit countries of choice in South-East Asia for pangolins or other illicit wildlife coming from Africa to Asia,” the report stated.


Kedah Wildlife Department officials showing pangolins confiscated from traffickers in early November. Photo: Bernama

Exploiting Africa

With populations of Asian pangolins dropping by up to 80% in the last 10 years, traders have now turned to Africa for their supply.

There are eight species of pangolins in the world; four in Asia and four in Africa. All eight species are currently under threat and protected under national and international laws.

In September 2016, 183 nations came together at the world’s largest wildlife protection convention (the Convention on Inter-national Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora, or CITES), to approve a complete ban on all trade of live pangolin, pangolin meat and scales.

This ruling came into force in January this year, with Malaysia being one of the member countries.


Live pangolins are often smuggled in plastic bags, as this file photo of a bust by the Kedah Wildlife Department in Sept 2015 shows.

However, pangolins still stand as the most widely trafficked animals in the world, mainly due to high demand from China and Vietnam.

The scaly mammals are valued for their meat, regarded as a delicacy, and also their scales, which are used in traditional medicine for ailments ranging from asthma to arthritis. Each pangolin posseses some 1,000 scales on their body.

According to the Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA), it was only in May 2015 that the Vietnam Government stopped pangolin scales being available under health insurance schemes.

In China however, there is still a domestic yearly quota of about 25 tonnes (equivalent to 25,000-50,000 pangolins) of pangolin scales for medicinal use.

The International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) has listed all Asian pangolin species as either “Critically Endangered” or “Endangered” while the African species are all listed as “Vulnerable”.

EIA’s analysis of available crime reports suggests that 160,000 individual pangolins have been seized during the past 16 years. It is believed that this only represents as little as 10% of the actual volume of illegal trade.

Since 2015, there have been at least 10 seizures of pangolin scales each over two tonnes, representing 2,000-5,000 pangolins, either within Africa or originating in Africa.

The largest of these, seized in Hong Kong originating from Nigeria, totalled over seven tonnes of pangolin scales, accounting for 7,000-14,000 pangolins.

From only these 10 seizures, the amount of pangolin scales seized which originated from Africa stands at over 30 tonnes, or 30,000-60,000 pangolins.

Of particular concern is the size of the seized pangolin scale shipments both within Africa and key import hubs in Asia known to originate from Africa, with Tanzania, Nigeria, Cameroon and Uganda emerging as key export hubs.

EIA calls for legislation change in countries that legitimise the use of pangolin scales in medicine. It also urges that such countries stop misleading people by claiming that the source of their pangolins includes captive-bred ones, as pangolins cannot live in captivity.

It further recommends that all countries with high levels of illegal trade invest in an effective enforcement and criminal justice response to wildlife crime, including increasing prosecutions and deterrent sentencing for those convicted of illegally trading in pangolins.