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Pangolin poachers are “winning” in South Africa’s courts with a large proportion of regional magistrates courts siding with wildlife traders while its high courts have been described as an “embarrassment”. 

But if the country has any hope of securing a future for pangolins in the wild in the next 20 years, its judicial system has to join the fight to protect the most heavily poached mammal on the planet, says Prof Ray Jansen, the founder and chairperson of the African Pangolin Working Group (APWG). 

Dedicated to understanding and protecting Africa’s four increasingly vulnerable pangolin species, the APWG works closely with law enforcement officials, including from the SAPS and the Green Scorpions, conducting sting operations that lead to the seizure of traded wild pangolins and the arrests of pangolin traffickers. 

“The teams on the ground are fighting extremely hard to curb pangolin poaching, which has surged in recent years in South Africa, often at risk of our lives,” explains Jansen. 

“The courts, however, are not all on the same page and often the accused are found guilty and let off with a fine or/and a suspended sentence. 

We have been fortunate where some courts and presiding magistrates are aware that pangolins are threatened with extinction and are the most illegally traded mammals on earth but other courts just refuse to acknowledge this.”

 Jansen cites a pangolin-trafficking case in the Randburg Magistrate’s Court on July 22 where the accused received a R50 000 fine or five years’ imprisonment and a further five-year jail term suspended for five years.

“So he paid and walked out. They receive far more for a pangolin than the value of that fine and this young male pangolin died from complications relating to its captivity in the illegal trade.”

In the Pietermaritzburg Magistrate’s Court on February 21, the accused was found guilty and a fine of R240 000 was imposed or three years in jail but this was all suspended for five years.

“He too walked into freedom and that male pangolin also died in the hospital.” There are numerous other examples, says Jansen. “There are instances where the courts have upheld the law such as where the Tembisa court ruled a seven-year jail sentence in 2017, Tzaneen court seven years in 2018, Middelburg six years in October 2018 and this year an eight-year jail term was obtained in the Nelspruit court.” 

On Thursday, two Zimbabwean nationals were sentenced in the Malamulele regional court in Limpopo for being in possession of two Temminck’s ground pangolins, four years imprisonment and a R10 000 fine or six years in prison for illegal entry into the country. “It’s not all doom and gloom,” says Jansen. Regional magistrate’s courts rely on sentencing from the high court. 

“There has been one such reduced conviction emanating from the high court in Polokwane. The four accused were sentenced in the regional magistrate’s  court in Musina to five years, two of which was suspended for a period of five years. Accused 1 was a member of the SAPS. 

“Three of the accused took the matter to the high court where it was reduced to a six months’ sentence or R3 000 fine and three year’s imprisonment suspended for three years. 

So, the policeman paid his fine and walked out. “The other two accused had a sentence reduced to two years, one year of which was suspended for three years and the remaining year was considered time served. 

They too walked free.” In a recent sting operation Jansen led with the assistance of the SAPS, five suspects were arrested with two live pangolins near Hammanskraal. The police booked the vehicle and mobile phones in as evidence.

“Four of the five suspects were given bail and the one primary suspect approached the high court in Pretoria to retrieve his belongings that were impounded and that held vital evidence for the case.” On November 29, the high court ruled in his favour with costs to the State. 

“Both pangolins died in hospital. How can this be?” The illegal trafficking of pangolin on the continent and more recently in SA is highly organised and often syndicated, says Jansen. “The same groups are often caught with other wildlife contraband I have witnessed, such as elephant ivory and diamonds. 

“Pangolins are not opportunistically poached as many think. They are purposefully sought out for the illegal wildlife trade.” Jansen says many courts use outdated provincial legislation, but this is often not as severe as national environmental legislation. For example, the Limpopo Environmental Management Act 7 of 2003 imposes a sentence of a fine of R250 000 or/and imprisonment of 15 years. 

The more recent National Environmental Management: Biodiversity Act 10 of 2004 (with 2013 revisions), imposes a prison term of 10 years and/ or R10 million fine for being in illegal possession of a pangolin. 

“These are the harshest sentences for trading in pangolins in the world but they are not being imposed and in the large majority of cases the poachers walk free to trade in pangolins once more.” 

Lion, elephant and rhino are listed on Appendix II of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora, while pangolins are listed on Appendix I, for species threatened with extinction in which trade is permitted only in exceptional circumstances.

Keeping pangolins alive

"They always come in dehydrated and underweight,” says Nicci Wright, executive director of the African Pangolin Working Group, of pangolins retrieved from the illegal wildlife trade. 

“They are kept without food and water, sometimes for two weeks. “We put them on drips and slowly build their strength and then we take them to a special place to walk them for up to eight hours a day so they can forage naturally on the ant species they prefer.” 

The shy, prehistoric mammals are severely traumatised. “We’ve got to get their psyche right and let them heal. Sometimes, it can take months. When we are satisfied with their weight and the results of their blood tests, we begin the release process.”

In early November, Wright transported Zambezi, see main pic, a rescued pangolin, to a private nature reserve in northern KwaZulu-Natal to initiate his “soft release” programme.

He was fitted with a VHF and satellite telemetry device and his post release survival and distribution will be monitored for the next year. Pangolins are locally extinct in KwaZulu-Natal and the APWG has reintroduced several rehabilitated pangolins back into the province.

“Zambezi is doing really well,” says Wright. “He’s a beautiful little pangolin. I just feel so sorry for them all. They have their own territory established, they know where all the ant nests are.

They have their own preferred burrows and they know where the other pangolin nests are. “They live this secretive, nocturnal life and all of a sudden they’re plucked into these rough hands.

 They’re terrified and traumatised and are often abused. We get the footage and you see what they go through and how they are kept, you just try to make everything better for the animal that has gone from a peaceful existence to one of absolute terror. 

Putting pangolins back into their territory and watching them maintain themselves is so rewarding. Each one has their own personality, their own quirks.” 

Fighting organised crime

One animal at a time. That’s the motto of Fanie Masango, a specialised biodiversity officer and environmental management inspector at Gauteng’s Green Scorpions, who was involved in the sting operation to retrieve Zambezi, and who works with the APWG. 

“This crime is highly organised. You find one guy from Limpopo, another from North West and another from Zimbabwe involved. For us, successfully recovering the pangolin and having it successfully rehabilitated and released back into the wild is what keeps us going. 

Our goal in every operation is that the animal comes out alive. “The guys who are negotiating the deal don’t care if it’s dead or alive, but we want to ensure it has a chance of survival. The pangolins go through so much stress and trauma and it kills many of them.”

The magnitude of the illicit trade is alarming. “When you see the number of scales that get recovered abroad, it doesn’t match the number of pangolins we’re rescuing this side.

There’s a lot that gets poached and goes out of the country undetected – so much is falling through the cracks and that’s worrying.”

The Saturday Star