Professor Ray Jansen was sitting on his stoep last week Tuesday enjoying the sunset with his Labradors and drinking a cold beer when the call came through.
A senior police officer in Limpopo told Jansen, the founder of the non-profit African Pangolin Working Group (APWG), that a member of the public had been contacted by a man who intended to sell him two pangolins.
Would he take over the negotiations? Jansen, who has devoted over the last decade to conserving the elusive, enigmatic mammals, did not hesitate.
Pangolins, or scaly anteaters, are rarely glimpsed in the wild. Revered in traditional African culture, they're viewed as "ghost animals" because of their secretive, solitary nature. They're the most heavily poached mammal on the planet and rank among the most trafficked wildlife species on the continent.
Jansen contacted the concerned member of the public, requesting him to pass his number onto the illicit seller, who promptly sent him a message about the sale.
Jansen relayed his interest but first needed to verify the animals were alive. Video footage was sent the next morning via WhatsApp.
Satisfied, Jansen arranged a meeting at a garage near the Carousel in Hammanskraal that afternoon. The alleged smugglers didn’t know it but Jansen had back-up: the Gauteng Green Scorpions, the SAPS’s Stock Theft and Endangered Species Unit and the Bronkhorstspruit K9 Unit.
After a 40-minute wait, he was eventually led to the rear boot of a Toyota Fortuner. There, two live Temminck’s ground pangolins were curled inside two white sacks. He placed his hands on his head as a signal for the police units to move in and all five suspects were arrested.
The pangolins, severely malnourished, are recovering under the care of the team at the Johannesburg Wildlife Veterinary Hospital. Now, a week after the bust, Jansen’s phone rings as he sits in a conference room in Pretoria. “This is one of them (another trafficker) ... They'll call back.”
Jansen tells how he often uses himself as bait. “A lot of the time, they will go to a wealthy farmer or someone with a big business who will call the police.
“The information goes to the stock theft unit or the endangered species unit and they phone me. I tell them to put my number through the African bush telegraph.
“I’m permanently armed now. This is organised crime. Before and after (a sting operation), I’m shaking like a leaf. I don’t tell my wife until it’s finished."
He does not discuss prices with the pangolin traffickers as this only fuels the illicit trade, he says.
This year, Jansen and his team have recorded 29 cases - down from 43 last year. “We’ve stopped the poaching a bit but not the demand We’ve found pangolin scales in Richards Bay, Durban Harbour and Cape Town Harbour and pangolin skins in Cape Town.
We’ve had a few busts in the Northern Cape. Gauteng is a hotspot because it’s where the money is, and on the edge of game farm areas in Nelspruit, Bushbuckridge, Tzaneen, Phalaborwa and Musina.”
The poachers on the ground are often desperate, unemployed people. “If you’re a destitute parent, and you can get your hands on a pangolin you’re going to do it, no matter what the law says.”
While there have been escalating levels of pangolin trafficking in other parts of Africa, the number of incidents in SA has been relatively low, says a new policy brief, A Question of Scales: Assessing Strategies for Countering Illegal Trafficking of Pangolins in Africa.
“However, throughout the region, especially in SA, trafficking tends to be in live Temminck’s ground pangolins rather than their scales as is the case in other parts of Africa,” writes its author Richard Chelin, a researcher at the ENACT organised crime programme at the Institute for Security Studies (ISS).
ENACT is funded by the EU and implemented by the ISS, Interpol and the Global Initiative against Transnational Organised Crime.
“There is also a disturbing trend in an increased cross-border trade, specifically from Mozambique, Botswana and Zimbabwe into SA. Poachers find it easier to sell their catch in SA, where sentences for pangolin trafficking are relatively light.”
In his paper, Chelin notes how the price demanded for live pangolins has rocketed. “This indicates that traffickers have come to realise pangolins are profitable creatures. It’s less dangerous to capture a pangolin than to poach a rhino or an elephant. Unlike in other parts of Africa, there is not an established illegal market for pangolins in SA. But it’s no reason for laxity.”
In the past decade, scales from more than a million pangolins have been traded globally. The insatiable demand for their keratinous scales and meat, largely from south-east Asia, has created a lucrative illicit market run by transnational criminal syndicates.
Pangolin flesh is consumed as a delicacy and symbol of luxury and wealth. The blood and scales - crushed in powder form - are used in traditional Chinese medicine, believed to cure asthma, rheumatism, skin disorders, cancer and cerebral palsy and to promote blood circulation.
The foetus is consumed in the belief it enhances virility while the skin is turned into leather products. “In short, all parts of pangolin are profitable,” says Chelin.
Criminal networks seek to use SA as a hub to export pangolin scales from other parts of Africa to Asia, he says. As Asia’s four pangolin species are being wiped out, surging demand has seen criminal networks turn their attention to Africa’s four vulnerable species.
Across Africa, most countries use generic anti-wildlife crime policies and strategies to address the illicit trade, but Chelin argues this fails to address the loopholes in policies in dealing with the illegal trade in the species.
In SA, outdated provincial legislation and different levels of listing of the pangolins contribute to the flourishing illegal trade. There is no specific strategy to address the illicit harvesting and trafficking of pangolins while the focus is on species such as rhino and elephant. This, he says, is “’at the expense of lesser-known animals like pangolins”.
A pangolin-specific conservation strategy is urgently needed, Chelin says. “The illegal trade in pangolins presents a threat to national and regional security. Criminal networks involved in this trade are also involved in cross-border incursions and other forms of organised crime such as money laundering, illicit financial flows and arms, drugs and human trafficking.
“There are also instances where profits derived from wildlife trafficking have been used to finance terrorism-related activities and rebel groups. It has therefore become imperative to move away from the perception that the illegal trade in pangolin is purely an environmental problem but rather a form of serious transnational organised crime.”
Pangolins are easy prey for poachers, reproduce slowly and are difficult to breed in captivity. In Africa, pangolins are also targeted for their flesh skin and scales, considered a delicacy and consumed as bushmeat.
“As the growing illegal market in pangolins expanded from Asia into Africa, traffickers realised there was profit to be made from the scales as well. With the involvement of Asian criminal networks, pangolin poaching and trafficking became more sophisticated and profitable.
The figures for the past three years are concerning as they show a dramatic increase in volume,” says the brief.
This year, almost 70 tons of pangolins scales have been intercepted that left the shores of Africa. This equates to well over 100 000 African pangolins, says Jansen.
“That’s an onslaught we cannot win,” he says, explaining this is the minority as most is smuggled through clandestine networks.Curbing demand in consumer countries in Asia is crucial, says Jansen. China recently announced traditional medicines containing pangolin scales will no longer be covered by its state insurance funds.
The use of pangolin in traditional medicine in China can be traced back thousands of years. “It’s not going to go away, like the rhino trade is not going to go away. We have to somehow chop the head off the snake and that’s unfortunately a cultural thing. One of the best angles to take is to educate the youth, and Chinese youth are picking up on this.”
In SA, bigger fines and longer sentences are needed. Legislation, such as the Gauteng Nature Conservation Ordinance of 1983, is outdated and not aligned with the National Environmental Management Biodiversity Act (NEMBA). The fine for hunting a pangolin ranges from just R1500 to R2000 with prison sentences between 18 to 24 months.
By contrast, the penalty for hunting an elephant or a rhino is a fine of R100000, 10 years in prison or both. NEMBA allows for a maximum prison sentence of 10 years and a fine of R10million.
Fanie Masango, of the Gauteng Green Scorpions, who works closely with Jansen, remarks how “the poachers are laughing at us”.
Prosecutors, judges and magistrates need to be educated on the severity of wildlife crime while better co-ordination is needed between crime intelligence, police, the Hawks and conservation officers.
“In previous pangolin cases, we’ve caught undocumented foreign nationals. They get bail, they’ve fled. They give unverified addresses I’ve had a prosecutor tell me straight: ‘I’ve got murder cases to deal with and you bring me some animal?’ We need a lot more awareness.”
Jansen warns the pangolin could vanish in 20 years at the current rate of poaching and trade. Maria Diekmann, the founder of Namibia’s Rare and Endangered Species Trust, predicts a bleaker outlook: just 10 years. “A rhino is poached every eight hours. A pangolin is poached every five minutes. We have no back-up; no captive population
“Pangolins, like crocodiles, are one of the oldest living animals in the world. They’ve survived everything the world has thrown at them and yet man in the last five years is running them into extinction,” she says.
Illegal trade rampant despite highest levels of protection
In 2016, at the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora, 183 member nations voted to give the highest level of protection to all eight pangolin species, outlawing the international commercial trade in pangolin parts. But Jansen says the practical reality is that it is very difficult to enforce this ruling.
"The problems stem around educating law enforcement to recognize pangolin scales or even to locate them in large shipping containers leaving the ports and harbors of Africa for the east. Manpower, capacity and knowledge are huge stumbling blocks to overcome and the vast majority of shipments are still going undetected,"says Jansen.