A pangolin is captured from the wild, either to be killed or sold, every five minutes in the world. In fact, they are the most smuggled animal in the world, and Malaysia has a share in this “distinction”.

The word “pangolin” actually comes from the Malay word “pengguling”, or “something that rolls up”. They are sometimes mistaken as reptiles but are actually scaly-skinned mammals.

Solitary and nocturnal, these gentle creatures roll themselves into a ball for protection when threatened. While their scales provide a shield from predators, as “animal balls”, they are easy targets for poachers to simply pick up.

With some 1,000 scales per animal, the pangolin looks like a pinecone on four legs – but it’s those scales which may doom them to extinction as they are believed to cure ailments from asthma to arthritis in traditional medicine. However, the scales are made of keratin, the same substance of human hair and nails, so it’s highly questionable what special curative power they have.

Feb 18 is World Pangolin Day and WWF (World Wildlife Fund) together with TRAFFIC (The Wildlife Trade Monitoring Network), continue their work in Asia and Africa to protect these animals from wildlife crime.

WWF says that populations of Asian pangolins (known as tenggiling in Malay) have dropped by up to 80% in the last 10 years. This has pushed traders to look to Africa for their supply.

More than one million pangolins were illegally traded globally between 2000 and 2014, says Lalita Gomez, programme officer with TRAFFIC in South-East Asia, making them one of the most trafficked mammals on earth.

File photo of a pangolin foetus served as an exotic dish in Sabah.

Filepic of a pangolin foetus served as an exotic dish in Sabah, Malaysia. Photo: TRAFFIC

All this is mainly to feed the voracious demand for pangolins from China and Vietnam, where they are coveted for their meat (viewed as a delicacy) and scales (for medicine).

Gentle creatures

Pangolins are fragile creatures that cannot be kept in captivity and they give birth to only one or two offspring annually. Also known as scaly anteaters, pangolins feed exclusively on ants and termites by scooping them up with their sticky tongues, which can be even longer than their bodies!

They have long and sharp claws to excavate termite and ant mounds, dig through rocks or strip away tree bark. They can even climb trees in their search for food.

As hordes of ants and termites attack them, their scaly armour is not their only protection – they can also seal off their ears and nose through special flaps that keep out the angry insects.

There are eight species of pangolins in the world, four are found in Asia and the rest in Africa. All eight species are currently under threat and protected under national and international laws, but the global illegal trade in them is still rampant due to the high demand.

In September 2016, the world’s largest wildlife protection convention (the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora or CITES), saw over 183 nations come together to approve a complete ban on all trade of live pangolin, pangolin meat and scales. This ruling came into force in January (Malaysia is one of the member countries).

A rescued pangolin curls itself up in self defence - but it's helpless against human greed.

A rescued pangolin curls itself up in self defence – but it’s helpless against human greed.

According to a report in traffic.org in Oct 2016, a study of the trade in 809,723 pangolins from 1977 to 2014 has confirmed the switch from Asian to African pangolin species after the year 2000.

Asian pangolins dominated the trade until 2000 when CITES effectively banned international trade in wild-caught Asian pangolins.

According to Lalita, trade in pangolins is primarily driven by demand from China and Vietnam, two areas where pangolins are now considered extinct.

“When this happened, we saw an escalation in the poaching of pangolins in neighbouring countries, particularly Indonesia and Malaysia, and elsewhere in Asia, to satisfy this demand. This has devastated the numbers of Asian pangolins,” she said.

Protected in theory

She added that there has been a spate of large seizures recently, the most recent case being three tonnes of scales originating from Congo (Central Africa) that were seized in Thailand this month.

“China seized its largest haul of pangolin scales from Cameroon in Dec 2016 with over three tonnes. This roughly equates to between 5,000 and 7,000 pangolins killed. Last year, two seizures of shipments from Cameroon and Nigeria had 4,000kg and 7,300kg of scales respectively,” she said. Commenting on the CITES ruling, Lalita said, “We hope it will lead to more arrests and prosecutions. The higher penalties and fines should technically act as a stronger deterrent,” she said.

Law enforcement efforts have improved in Asia over the years with a rise in pangolin seizures reported. However, Lalita explained that seizures alone will not deter poachers and traders, if they do not lead to arrests and prosecutions.

“National wildlife laws also need to be improved to incorporate stricter penalties and address weaknesses that prevent arrests, prosecutions and convictions,” she emphasised.

A customs officer holding up pangolin scales at the customs department in Bangkok, Thailand.

A customs officer holding up pangolin scales at the customs department in Bangkok, Thailand.

Cross border intelligence-led investigations need to be enhanced to identify and shutdown the international and organised criminal networks involved in the smuggling of pangolins.

“This is crucial if we are to see pangolins survive this threat,” she added.

In Malaysia, the pangolin is totally protected in Peninsular Malaysia under the Wildlife Conservation Act 2010 with high penalties – fines of between RM50,000 and RM100,000, jail time up to three years, or both. But in Sabah and Sarawak, pangolins are not totally protected.

In the meantime, TRAFFIC continues to monitor trade of pangolins in key areas and work with other NGOs to study the scale of the trade in pangolins.

In Malaysia, the group is also trying to raise awareness of traditional medicine practitioners on the legality of using pangolins and other endangered wildlife.

However, challenges remain.

“Criminal networks involved in the trade are increasingly well-organised and well-resourced and operate with near impunity. It is time governments start prioritising wildlife crime,” she said.

“National laws need to be improved and traders need to be prosecuted to the maximum penalties under the law.”

Saved from smugglers

Feb 2, 2017: Thai customs seized three-tonnes of pangolin scales at Bangkok’s main airport. The contraband was shipped from Congo, smuggled through Turkey and eventually bound for Laos – a key transit hub for regional trafficking syndicates – and is the biggest lot of pangolin scales seized by Thai authorities so far.

Dec 30, 2016: Over 100 pangolins bound for Thailand were rescued by the Border Security Agency (Aksem) from a house in Changlun, Kedah. Most of the 109 pangolins, both adults and young ones, were alive when they were seized. The animals were believed to be worth a total of RM196,200.

Malayan pangolins confiscated by the Wildlife Department before being sent to China. Photo: The Star

Malayan pangolins confiscated by the Wildlife Department before being sent to China. Photo: The Star

Dec 21, 2016: According to voanews.com, Cameroon intercepted more than 670kg of African pangolins being smuggled to Malaysia.

Nov 5, 2016: A Malaysian was among three held following the bust of an illegal pangolin trafficking ring in Jambi, Indonesia. Two tonnes of pangolin meat and some 650kg of pangolin scales were seized.

Sept 10, 2015: 97 pangolins RM100,000 were saved following the arrest of a man in Sungai Petani by the Kedah Wildlife Department. The pangolins were found in a house and in the boots of two cars following a tip-off. The animals were believed to be meant for smuggling into Thailand.

June 18, 2014: A Malaysian businessman was arrested by Hong Kong Customs following the seizure of 3.3 tonnes of pangolin scales smuggled from Africa. The haul came from two shipments that arrived from Malaysia. It was described as the largest seizure of pangolin scales there in five years.

On June 11, another container declared as “sawn timber” from Cameroon, was found to have 2.34 tonnes of pangolin scales.

It is believed that the scales from both shipments came from 8,000 pangolins and may have been bound for mainland China. According to the South China Morning Post, Customs officers arrested an unnamed 46-year-old Malaysian businessman. The report added that both shipments came via Malaysia.

A Hong Kong official said the total value amounted to HK$17mil (RM7mil).

Sept 28, 2012: A lorry driver was fined RM60,000 by the Sessions Court in Kota Baru for illegal possession of 155 pangolins estimated to be worth RM325,000. He was charged under Section 68(2)(a) of the Wildlife Conservation Act 2010 (Act 716) which carries a maximum fine of RM100,000, five-year jail term or both.

June 4, 2012: Kelantan state police prevented 171 pangolins worth RM340,000 from ending up in Thailand with the arrest of five men.

Jan 7, 2012: A Filipino pleaded guilty to smuggling pangolin meat worth over RM700,000 in Sabah. 1,068 frozen pangolins weighing about 5,000kg were seized by Customs officers in waters off Sandakan.