Dorcas Wangira: Pangolins in the Dock

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Marungu, Voi

In the open grasslands of the Tsavo Conservation area, Fanuel Mwazame, a wildlife scout at the Chalongo Conservancy, peers into pangolin burrows. He is hoping to spot, at high noon, an elusive mammal that almost always comes out at night. Hours later, he resigns. It will have to wait till midnight. 

“With the pangolin, it’s almost as if you won’t find it when you look for it but when you are not searching, you spot it,” Mwazame says.

Tsavo means slaughter in the Akamba language. It is also the largest conservation area in Kenya and one of the places you are likely and lucky to see a pangolin. In Chamani village in Marungu bordering the Tsavo East National Park, far too few people have seen this mammal. In the open plains, semi-desert scrub, acacia woodlands and riverine forests, there are more charismatic animals that roam this land - exemplified by  the vast herds of famous elephants. Yet the irony is that the elusive pangolin is the most trafficked mammal in the world.

Pangolin protections cut during the pandemic

The 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 taken in the wild every 5 minutes. 

"We are losing [pangolins] at an unprecedented level,” 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 157 million (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. 

The case will be publicly mentioned on January 26. This being the first 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 76 percent when comparing the time periods 1998-2014 and 2015-2019, pangolin scale seizures declined by only 22 percent, according to the Environmental Investigation Agency.