Pangolin Day: Saving world’s most trafficked mammal

With one million pangolins estimated to have been traded illegally in the last decade, this solitary, primarily nocturnal animal is the most trafficked mammal in the world.

Also known as the scaly anteaters, there are eight species of the pangolin, with four found in Asia and the rest in Africa. While all four Asian pangolins are listed as endangered or critically endangered under the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List, the four African pangolins are all listed as vulnerable under the IUCN Red List.

According to an Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) study on all publicly available records for pangolin seizures globally, the number of documented seizure incidents within Africa had gone up from 39 in February 2016 to 113 reported seizures now, with Tanzania, Nigeria, Cameroon and Uganda emerging as key export hubs.

Trafficking in such large quantities occurring on an international scale highlights the organised nature of this illegal trade which is proving increasingly profitable to wildlife traffickers. Although with its protective scales and unusual stance, the pangolin may appear to be aggressive, it is however, vulnerable, as it rolls itself into a ball for protection when threatened, thereby making it easy for poachers to simply pick up.

The demand for pangolin scales comes mostly from China and Vietnam, where its scales are unfortunately believed to be a cure-all of sorts and its flesh is considered a delicacy.

In response to the pangolin’s plight, numerous campaigns have been launched to raise awareness on its vulnerability, including the World Pangolin Day which is celebrated every third Saturday in February to come up with ways of tackling the rapid decline of pangolin population in Asia and Africa.

As part of activities to mark the 2017 World Pangolins Day, the Pangolin Conservation Working Group, Nigeria in collaboration with the National Environmental Standards and Regulations Enforcement Agency (NESREA), South West Zone, organised a programme titled ‘Speak Up for Pangolins,’ where pangolin enthusiasts spoke on the various factors contributing to the illegal trade of pangolins in Nigeria and how it can be stopped.

Held at the Conference Centre, University of Ibadan (UI), coordinator of the group, and Associate Professor at the Department of Zoology, UI, Dr Olajumoke Morenikeji noted that the recent spate of illegal trafficking in pangolins and their parts in Nigeria has become alarming, hence the need for their conservation.

“There is an insatiable demand for pangolin scales especially in China where they are used for traditional medicines. There is a belief that the scales has curative properties like keratin and can be used to treat skin diseases. There is also claim that its liver, throat and toes can successfully treat asthma, goitre, elephantiasis and impotence, among others. In some other parts of the world including Nigeria, pangolins’ meat is considered a delicacy.

“Pangolins, like all animals going to extinction, serve as buffer for human beings. If we remove all the buffers in the ecosystem, one day, the human race will also go into extinction. The issue of pangolin poaching is a shame to the country, for a recently seized shipment in China contained kilogrammes of pangolin scales, which totalled 7, 200 pangolins, got from Nigeria,” she said.

The event which also focused on the enforcement of laws to protect wildlife in Nigeria, especially the pangolin, had in attendance representatives of law enforcement agencies which include the Police and the Customs, with plans to engage all relevant agencies, institutions and individuals responsible for the enforcement of wildlife protection laws in Nigeria.

A major factor hindering the conservation of pangolins is the fact that it does not survive in captivity, and it also only give birth to just one or two offspring annually, therefore its sustainability rate is low. They are insectivorous; they are highly selective of the ants and termites they prey upon, as such foraging specificity is a contributing factor for the poor success in keeping pangolins in captivity.

In September 2016, the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (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.

CITES is a global instrument for regulating international trade in listed wild species that are or may be affected by international trade for preservation of natural resources.

In her remarks, Deputy Director, Heads of Wildlife and CITES Management Division, Ministry of Environment, Dr Elizabeth Ehi-Ebewele, noted that of the four species across Africa, only three which are the Giant pangolin, the Tree pangolin and the Long-tailed Pangolin are found in Nigeria.

According to her, the giant pangolin is believed

to be extinct, since it has not been sighted for over seven years in Nigeria.

“The status of specific geographic populations in the wild is poorly known. And the pangolin is almost completely extirpated from savannah habitat and other parts of northern Nigeria, although some population still exists in the forest zone of the South-West and Southern parts of the country.

“Exploitation driven by international trade has contributed immensely to the high demand for pangolins. Market demand is increasing price of pangolins in Asia and Africa; in Nigeria for instance, the price of pangolins has increased 10 fold in the last seven years. This also is due to domestic bush meat and traditional medicine,” she said.

She stated further that deforestation is an additional driver for pangolin population decline, as many animals become vulnerable once their natural habitats are destroyed. Currently, Nigeria’s percentage forest cover is less than five per cent as against the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) recommended 25 per cent of total land area.

Buttressing the need for aggressive awareness, Director-General, the Nigerian Conservation Federation (NCF), Mr Adeniyi Karunwi said that since the law states that anyone found guilty of exploitation and commercial hunting of wild animals risks 10-year imprisonment with an option of N1 million fine or both, there is a need to make people aware that such act is a crime.

“Our environment is in danger; a lot of wild animals like pangolins are at the risk of going into extinction and there is over-exploitation of these animals. People need to know that exploitation and commercialisation of wildlife identified under Schedule 1 of the Endangered Species Amendment Act is a criminal offence that attracts a N1 million fine or a 10-year jail term,” he said.

Also, South-West Zonal Director, NESREA, Mr Adeleke Ajani, said that pangolins were important in the maintenance of ecological balance.

“The agency has a regulation on the prevention of illegal trade of endangered species which pangolin is one. Pangolin is peculiar because of its nature, it cannot breed in captivity and the breeding rate is one annually. So the agency is partnering with various stakeholders to ensure that we come up with enlightenment campaigns so that people will know the impact of killing an animal,” he said.

For effective collaboration, local hunters were also present at the event for a dialogue on how they could help to stop illegal poaching of wildlife.

Speaking on behalf of the Egbe Akoni Ode, Moniya, Mr Babarinde William Adekunle, a hunter noted that achieving this will entail a win-win situation for both the hunters and other stakeholders.

“Prior to this time, as a hunter, any animal that you kill, you eat. That is what we have been used to. It was not until last year that we heard of how endangered the pangolin has come to be. So even if there is a law on endangered species, the awareness is not enough. An average hunter who is really important to the issue of animal poaching has little or no knowledge about it. The pangolin is sold in market even in broad day light because no one knows it is a crime. So if there is a law, it should be enforced. I have never seen anyone arrested for killing an animal.

“Also if these bodies want us to help them, they must also help us. There is no way you can convince a hunter that has spent the entire night in the bush and could only catch a pangolin to let it go because he has to feed his family. So there must be a way to compensate us, as this is the only means of livelihood that we have,” he said.