Pangolins in the dock: Is the mammal really guilty as charged?
Pangolin protections cut during the pandemicThe pangolin remains the world’s most trafficked mammal despite an international ban on the trade of all pangolin species since January 2017. According to the United Nations Office On Drugs And Crime (UNODC), a single operation last April seized 25 tonnes of African pangolin scales, representing an estimated 50,000 dead pangolins at an estimated market value of USD $7 million. Between 2014 and 2018, the equivalent of 370,000 pangolins were seized globally. According to Dr. Claire Okell, the founder of the Pangolin Project with a background in veterinary science, more than a million pangolins have been poached in the wild. Pangolin scales are used in traditional Chinese medicine, and its meat is a delicacy in some parts of Asia. Leslie Olonyi, an environmental and natural resources lawyer, observes: “The money goes to individual people or whoever is selling the product. The network is engaging in illegal crimes. But the same routes are those being used to traffic ivory and probably drugs and illegal arms, a dangerous interconnected web of criminality.” Nigeria, Uganda and the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) act as transit countries and logistical hubs for illegal pangolin trafficking. At least 51 tonnes of pangolin scales were seized in Nigeria in 2019. In the last 5 years, its trade, sale, and consumption have significantly increased in Nigeria. UNODC’S notable seizures reveal significant seizures of pangolin scales from Nigeria and the DRC, with the main seizing countries being Vietnam, China, Singapore, Turkey and reported destinations being Vietnam and Malaysia. Pangolins are mammals, although many people think they are not. They are the only mammals covered in a fine layer of scales, yet additionally have a scaleless underbelly and nose covered by skin and hair. Pangolin scales are made of keratin – the same protein that makes up our fingernails, hair and animals’ hooves. They eat ants and termite species and are known to be shy and nocturnal. Bernard Agwanda, a taxidermist and research scientist at the National Museums of Kenya, adds: “Human beings miss them because they are active during the day and the pangolins come out at night. We rarely cross paths. If it sees a large animal, it will freeze. If you touch it or it hears commotion, it becomes like a stone. If you see it at night, you will pass it.” No one truly knows how many African pangolins are left in the wild. A pangolin is killed in the wild every 5 minutes. “We are losing [pangolins] at an unprecedented level,” Dr. Philip Muruthi adds. Imagine losing something that you don’t know. You don’t know what you lost; that is the situation with the pangolin. When a species becomes so dependent on conservation efforts, it is at very high risk of extinction.” Kenya reported its first case of Covid-19 on March 13, Travel restrictions and border closures soon followed, precipitating a near collapse of the wildlife tourism industry, since up to 70 percent of these tourists are international visitors. By May, 90 percent of the tourism sector had shut down, according to the Ministry of Tourism and Wildlife. Tourism contributes up to 10 percent of global GDP and around 8.5 percent of Kenya’s 2018 GDP. The number of international arrivals to Kenya in 2019 reached about 2.2 million, but due to the pandemic, the numbers dropped to about 400,000 in the first 10 months of 2020. Due to funding shortfalls and Covid-19 restrictions, non-state partners had to scale down operations, including monitoring and surveillance of the Kenyan pangolin population and training and paying conservancy scouts. Plans to begin the Kenya pangolin census and conduct baseline surveys were also put on hold. During the pandemic, there have been numerous sightings and rescues of pangolins captured by poachers in Kenya. In September, three people were arrested and charged with being in possession of a live pangolin. The three Kenyans, all male, were arrested by the Kenya Wildlife Service (KWS) officers on Sept. 22 in Likoni area and charged the next day at the Chief Magistrates Court in Mombasa. On Dec. 27, the Kenya Wildlife Service arrested 6 people in possession of pangolin scales. The six suspects were found with 5 boxes of pangolin scales worth Ksh. 157million (USD $1.4 million) and weighing 157 kilograms. The vehicle loaded with the contraband belonged to a clearing and forwarding agent based at the Jomo Kenyatta International Airport. The six were charged before Kibera Senior Principal Magistrate Phillip Mutua and court prosecutor Allan Mugere, where they denied the charges. They were released on Ksh.5 million bond. This being a major seizure in Kenya shows that the illegal trade of pangolins is continuing undoubtedly, with Kenya cementing its place as a source market and transit point. According to the Environmental Investigation Agency’s Out of Africa Report, Kenya ranks position 7 among African countries implicated in ivory and pangolin scales trafficking. Nigeria ranks first, having seized 167,594 kilograms of pangolin scales from 2015 to 2019. Uganda ranked fourth, having seized 9,199 kilograms and Kenya seventh with 1,396 scales seized. While the amount of illegal ivory seized from Kenya declined by 45,261 kilograms, pangolin scale seizures declined by only 401 kilograms over the reviewed years, according to the Environmental Investigation Agency. In other East African countries, pangolin seizures significantly increased.
Pangolins: A shy, endangered creatureLike other mammal species, pangolins give birth to one young one at a time, rarely having twins. There is no precise information about their gestation period; however, their birth rate is very low. They breastfeed their young for the first 2-3 months of their life, keeping them in burrows. Pangolin pups ride on the backs of their mothers in order to move about. They move slowly, almost like chameleons, but are very strong. Pangolins can stay up to 5 months with their mothers, some a year long before they move off and establish their own territories. Females move into male territories, and once established there, the males mate with females. Pangolins do not dig their own burrows but make use of abandoned aardvark, porcupine and warthog burrows. Pangolins also shelter in termite holes, caves, and in between rocks, shrubs or piles of debris. The unique ant-eaters have very long and sticky tongues, and when they sense danger or discomfort, they curl up into a ball as a defence mechanism. In doing this, they protect their head and underbelly, their outer layer of scales forming a tight armour to protect them from lions, hyenas and leopards. predation. “ Pangolins do not do well in captivity and it has been completely unsuccessful to keep them within zoos or reproduce them in a captive environment, where information comes from when it comes to wildlife species,” says Dr.Okell. Globally, there are eight species of pangolin found in Asia and Africa, all of which are threatened with extinction. In Africa, there are four species: the black-bellied pangolin, the white-ellied tree pangolin, the giant ground pangolin – all of which are threatened with extinction – and the Temminck’s ground pangolin, which is listed as vulnerable to extinction. The Giant Ground Pangolin is the largest in the world, weighing over 25 kilograms and living up to 20-25 years. The African pangolin species are native to 15 African countries dispersed throughout southern, central, and eastern Africa. The Temminck’s ground pangolin is the only species found in southern and eastern Africa. Kenya is home to three species of pangolins; ground pangolins are found in open bushland, tree pangolins are found in Kakamega and Loita Hills, and the giant pangolin is found in the Lake Victoria Region. “We have not had a record in around 40 years. We are not certain if it is still there or stagnated. We don’t even know with good precision how many pangolins we have. Even before the giant pangolin was known in Western Kenya, it was there in DRC and north Tanzania,”Agwanda notes. The white-ellied tree pangolin is the only tree species found in Kenya, where they are limited to the Kakamega forest. They are predominantly found across western and central Africa across the equatorial rainforest environments. The ground species in Kenya are the most widely distributed pangolins; they are found in rich savannah vegetation, open bushlands, arid areas, slopes, hillsides and woodlands.
Their distribution extends across the South Rift, Narok County, Taita Taveta, Mwingi, Kerio Valley, South Turkana and adjoining areas, in the West of Kenya and into the counties of West Pokot. The Maasai Mara reserve is a pangolin habitat as well as the Kakamega Forest, which is both a community reserve and a government protected area.
Entoboi – “a wonder”