When asked about his favorite pangolin story, Francois Meyer, a pangolin release specialist, said: history of Ally. After being rescued from the illegal trade, Ally, a pregnant female Temminck’s ground pangolin, was reintroduced to the wild and gave birth to her cub, Pod.
The following year, she had her second cub, Ray, named after pangolin expert Professor Ray Jansen of South Africa’s Tshwane University of Technology and the Pangolin Specialist Group of the International Union for Species Survival Commission. Nature Conservation.
Success stories like Ally’s are the culmination of efforts to ensure the survival of pangolins rescued from illegal trade and hold perpetrators accountable.
The Temminck’s ground pangolin, South Africa’s only native species, is ranked globally as vulnerable to extinction. These gentle, elusive creatures are difficult to study, but research indicates their numbers are declining, mainly due to illegal international trade. They are also threatened by habitat destruction and electric fences.
Historically, pangolins have served as game meat in some African countries, with limited use of their scales for traditional cultural practices. Jansen says the cultural use of pangolins in South Africa is considered sustainable. The existential threat arises from the illegal trade that supplies Asian demand for pangolin scales used in traditional Chinese medicine.
The international trade in pangolins and their derivatives, such as scales, is global forbidden. Pangolins are protected under South African law, which prohibits hunting, capturing, transporting, selling, purchasing, importing, exporting and possessing pangolins without a permit.
However, the ban has done little to mitigate trade globally. Unsustainable consumption of Asian pangolins likely led to increased supply of African species. The majority of shipments seized in Asia come from Africa, particularly central and western Africa. After being killed, pangolins are stripped of their scales, which are mainly shipped from Nigerian ports, mainly destined for China and Vietnam. Seizures of whole pangolins from Africa are rare, although their meat is considered a delicacy in Asia.
South Africa is an outlier in this global trade due to limited seizures of pangolins. Jansen told the ENACT organized crime project that from January to August 2023, around 30 pangolins were seized in the country, on par with former figures of years.
Most of these seizures were of live pangolins and were directed by a task equipment comprising different law enforcement entities, often based on information received from the public. The seizures were largely made in Limpopo province, where pangolins are usually sourced from. In some cases, they were brought across the border from Mozambique, Botswana and Zimbabwe.
Jansen says the motivation for this cross-border movement could be to avoid strictly imposed sanctions in neighboring countries, or the perception that South Africa has more buyers. That explains why many seizures have been made in economic hubs like Gauteng. Most of the arrests are of foreign nationals from countries such as Zimbabwe and Mozambique.
Although these isolated incidents are incomparable to seizures of several tons of pangolin scales in containers in central and western Africa, experts say changing trends in South Africa may be a cause for concern.
Jansen and Meyer agree that pangolin sales were initially largely opportunistic, carried out by impoverished members of the community trying to make a quick buck. Now, however, suspects often own businesses and vehicles and deal in other illegal goods. police and government Officials have also been arrested. Another emerging trend is the increase in seizures of pangolins and skins from the Northern Cape Province and Namibia.
Rescuing pangolins from traffickers is just the first step in a series of efforts to care for seized pangolins and return them to the wild. Pangolins are sensitive to stress during capture and trafficking and often suffer psychological effects and illnesses much worse than physical injuries.
After being confiscated by police, non-governmental organizations often take over their care, which includes veterinary treatment and rehabilitation for those who survive. They then enter a period of facilitated and supervised release until they are completely wild again.
Meyer says that through trial and error, a group of passionate pangolin rescuers has developed best practices to get the animals from the trade back into the savanna. They have trained counterparts, which has resulted in multiple institutions being able to care for the rescued pangolins.
As awareness of this illegal trade has increased, there have been intensified prayers are being transmitted more and more. And although the number of seizures is stable, as was once the case for rhinos before illegal trapping escalated rapidly. While most law enforcement efforts focus on the seizure of individual pangolins, it is possible that animals are being transported, undetected, from South Africa on a larger scale.
South Africa already serves as an exit point for large shipments of wildlife products such as ivory and abalone. But – as is typical in organized crime investigations – Jansen points out the difficulty of infiltrating the criminal networks responsible for large export operations.
If the trade is actually becoming more organized, involving professionals and government officials, it opens the door to corruption, as occurred in the rhino horn and abalone trade. That could cause pangolin smuggling to grow and take root in South Africa. With global illegal trade showing no signs of slowing down, the country should be prepared to prevent this expansion.
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Meyer and Jansen highlight the urgency of teaching people about unique species like pangolins, keeping them alive in popular culture so that South Africa does not sell its natural resources to other countries before realizing what it has lost.
There are effective informal working relationships between the various entities fighting illicit trade and caring for pangolins. However, South Africa needs an intervention similar to the National Response Strategy to combat the flourishing illegal succulent trade. This would coordinate the activities of state and non-state actors and comprehensively address the pangolin trade, its causes and effects.
Carina Bruwer, Senior Researcher, ENACT, Institute for Security Studies (ISS) Pretoria
ENACT is funded by the European Union and implemented by the Institute for Security Studies in partnership with INTERPOL and the Global Initiative against Transnational Organized Crime.