The pangolin is the world’s most trafficked animal; over one million have been illegally trafficked in the past decade alone. Their meat is eaten in Africa and China, and its scales are considered, without proof, to have medicinal properties that heal everything from asthma to cancer.

The scaled mammals have been banned in international trade by the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora in 2016. However, within some African countries, such as Gabon, hunting and eating certain pangolin species is still legal.

A research team from the University of Stirling looked into the trading chain of the pangolin in Gabon.

“This is the first study of how illegally traded pangolins may be being sourced from African forests and it shows that the high value paid internationally for large giant pangolin scales is probably affecting their price, even in very remote villages,” said Dr Katharine Abernethy, of the Faculty of Natural Sciences at the University of Stirling.

A young and adult ground pangolin. Image credits: U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Headquarters.

Local hunters that take pangolins are more inclined to sell the pangolins than to eat them themselves due to the high price for pangolins. Inflation has only increased by 4.6% since 2002, but prices for pangolins have skyrocketed. In Libreville, the capital of Gabon, giant pangolin prices have increased by 211% while arboreal pangolin prices have increased by 73% in this time period. However, most of the hunters are likely not local subsistence hunters but part of a larger criminal hunting organization.

Although there has been increased law enforcement, traffickers are still able to sneak the pangolins out of the country. Indeed, the traded pangolins were not detected by law enforcement in the meat trade chains so they must be going along another route. They were found alongside ivory going across remote forest borders, suggesting that the same criminal groups are involved in trafficking both goods. The demand market for both is similar so traders could ship both illegal commodities to the same place.

Another connection that was found in the study was to Asian workers in Africa. Local hunters are selling more pangolins to Asian workers taking part in large logging, oil, and agro-industrial projects. It is unclear whether they export the goods back to Asia after that.

“We conclude that whilst there is clear potential and likelihood that a wild pangolin export trade is emerging from Gabon, traditional bushmeat trade chains may not be the primary support route. We recommend adjusting conservation policies and actions to impede further development of illegal trade within and from Gabon. As in the ivory trade, law enforcement and international efforts to save pangolins need to target specialized criminal hunters, rather than putting pressure on the subsistence community, ” concluded Dr Abernethy.

Understanding the trading chains of hunted pangolins could elucidate the best way to catch traders and stop the trade. This study has been the first to provide any information about pangolin trade and can help to inform reaction strategies.

Journal reference: Meine M. Mambeya, Francesca Baker, Brice R. Momboua, Aurélie Flore Koumba Pambo, Martin Hega, Vivien Joseph Okouyi Okouyi, Martial Onanga, Daniel W. S. Challender, Daniel J. Ingram, Hongyan Wang, Katharine Abernethy. The emergence of a commercial trade in pangolins from Gabon. African Journal of Ecology, 2018; DOI: 10.1111/aje.12507.

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