At least 400,000 pangolins are hunted and consumed in central Africa every year
Over one million pangolins have been hunted in the past decade, making it one of the world’s most trafficked mammals and pushing the elusive animal towards extinction.
“Twelve years ago, there were plenty of pangolins in the forest,” recalled Nde Agbor Njom, a bushmeat hunter from East Region of Cameroon. “But now they are scarce. We find them once in a while.”
Many Cameroonians prefer bushmeat to domestic livestock as they are easily available and cheaper. According to a 2017 study, at least 400,000 pangolins are hunted and consumed in Central Africa each year.
Cameroon hosts three species of pangolin — white-bellied, black-bellied and giant. There is one other species found in central Africa.
There are no available statistics on the exact population of pangolins in Cameroon. But rampant poaching and mushrooming international wildlife trade fuelled by Chinese poachers, has resulted in the dwindling population of pangolins, according to conservationists.
Researchers have warned that loss of pangolins could have drastic ecological and economical effects on local communities. “Pangolins prey on termites in our farms,” said Tehuema Rna Jearme, (45), a small-scale farmer from west Cameroon. “Without them, our crops will be damaged by termites.”
But big farmers who cultivate cocoa and palm trees often apply chemical fertilisers and pesticide, which reduce the populations of ants and termites.
The critically endangered species constitute a distinct taxonomic order and if they disappear, there will be nothing like them left on Earth.
Tough wildlife laws, poor enforcement
Pangolins fall under Category A of Classified Wildlife Species in Cameroon, which fully protects them from hunting, exploitation and possession.
Cameroon is also a signatory to the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora also known as CITES. The aim of CITES is to monitor international trade and conserve endangered species.
But in many central African countries, including Cameroon, illegal hunting and trade continue. Most of these wildlife protection laws and international agreement never translate into action on the ground, thus giving a golden opportunity to poachers and traffickers.
Overview of wildlife legislation in Cameroon
|January 20, 1994
|Foundational law introducing forestry, wildlife and fisheries regulations on protection and management
|July 20, 1995
|Conditions for implementation of wildlife regulations, especially actions with regard to wildlife, specified
|December 18, 2006
|Animals classified into three classes -- A,B,C
|September 22, 2004
|Conditions framed for obtaining a permit to work with and/or trade in ivory and its products
|July 29, 2005
|Application of a number of CITES provisions regarding detention, transport, international and domestic trade in all species of fauna, flora and fishery resources listed in Appendix I, II and III
|June 27, 2006
|Organisational set-up and operational procedure of Inter-ministerial Coordination and Monitoring Committee for implementation of CITES provided
|March 02, 2006
|Role of the CITES Scientific Authority in Cameroon defined
|July 6, 2015
|National Ivory Action Plans (NIAP) Committee to include members from relevant ministerial departments created
|January 11, 2017
|Poaching, commercialisation and exportation of pangolins prohibited
· Class A species should be protected completely; their capture is subject to authorisation
· Class B species are partially protected; they may be hunted, captured or killed subject to hunting permit
· Class C species are partially protected; they can be captured or killed according to conditions laid down by order of the minister-in-charge of wildlife
· According to December 18, 2006 order, all CITES Appendix I species are automatically considered to be in Class A and given complete protection
Source: Ministry of Forestry and Fauna, Cameroon
International transit point
Apart from being a source country, “Cameroon serves as an international transit hub for pangolins,” said, Samuel Ngueping, landscape officer, World Wildlife Fund (WWF), South-West Region, Cameroon.
“Most of these pangolins are often hunted in neighbouring Central African Republic, Gabon and Democratic Republic of Congo,” added Ngueping. He has been working to conserve endangered species in the Bayang Mbo Wildlife Sanctuary and Bakossi National Park under South-West Region.
In 2019 alone, a total of 2.3 tonnes of pangolin scales were seized at the Douala port, the country’s economic capital. In 2017 as well, the Douala port had confiscated the largest illegal shipment in central Africa, carrying 5 tonnes of pangolin scales, which was being transported to China. In 2016, Hong Kong authorities seized 4 tonnes of pangolin scales smuggled from Cameroon.
Last Great Ape (LAGA) is a civil society which facilitates wildlife law enforcement. In Cameroon, LAGA had assisted wildlife officials in the seizure of 7.5 tones of pangolin scales to date.
From the source country like Cameroon, the main method of transportation of pangolin scale is through sea and air routes. Shipments of pangolin scales were frequently disguised as fish scales, cashew nuts, oyster shells, or labelled as logs or metal/plastic.
According to a United Nations office of Drug and Crime report published in 2020, 50-70 per cent of pangolin scales seized worldwide were being carried to China, with Vietnam being the second most-common destination. Pangolin scales that contain keratin are highly sought-after in China as traditional medicine, though there is no scientific evidence they have any medicinal value.
Subsistence hunting to multi-billion trade
Until 2008, pangolins in rural Cameroon were largely hunted by locals as a delicacy (bushmeat). “After that, global demand surged for pangolin scales in the Asian markets,” emphasised Nja Beltin Tekuh, conservationists associated with Environment and Rural Development Foundation (ERuDeF).
“What used to be subsistence hunting, turned into a multi-million dollar international wildlife trafficking chain.” ERuDeF is a conservation civil society organisation that won the Whitely Fund for Nature Award for conserving critically endangered Cross River Gorillas.
In the past 5 years, Tekuh has undertaken several research studies on wildlife trade in Cameroon with a special focus on mammals. And his research findings reveal two different ways of processing pangolin meat.
He pointed out:
“Those who are involved in the Chinese trade of scales remove them with hot water. And those who are not involved, just burn the scales.”
However, the cases of burning scales by locals are rare, which signifies that a majority of poachers are involved in the Chinese trade.
Tansi Godwill Tansi, founding director of ECoDaS, in collaboration with WWF, executes community-based conservation programmes around the periphery areas of National Parks and Sanctuaries in South-West Region, Cameroon.
“Traffickers pay local hunters around 15,000 (FCFA, or $28) per kilogram for small scales,” said Tansi.
For larger scales, the price can go up to 30,000 FCFA ($55), he added. “Such a premium price is attracting local poachers.”
But in China or Vietnam, the meat and scale of pangolins can fetch up to $1,000 per kilogram.
Price range of various species of pangolins in Cameroon
Figures in Central African (CFA) Franc
|Fresh carcass without scales
|White bellied Pangolin
|Black bellied Pangolin
Source: TRAFFIC Report, 2019
“We can’t blame international trafficking alone,” said Enokenwa Allen Tabi, a former fellow at Rainforest Conservation Trust. “Encroachment of wildlife habitats for farmlands and unrestrained logging is creating additional pressure on pangolin populations,” underlined Tabi.
Reproductive cycle of pangolins is extremely slow. For conservationists and researchers, monitoring and observing pangolins is a challenging task.
“Pangolins are nocturnal and solitary mammals,” Tabi said. “Taping GPS on some of this species could provide critical data.”
Regularly monitoring the population trends of pangolin in their habitat areas is important. It will yield two benefits: First, it enables government and conservation institutions to make informed decisions about protecting the species. Second, it helps in facilitating the identification and prioritisation of key sites for holistic conservation.
There is also a lack of information on pangolin’s ecological behaviour including habitat preferences, home-range, average life-span, reproduction-cycle and feeding habits. “This information is critical to strategically revamp on-going conservation efforts in Cameroon,” said Tabi.
Involving communities living around pangolin’s habitat areas could effectively steer conservation campaigns. There are several examples where hunters have turned into die-hard conservationists.
“Promoting community-stewardship is key,” urged Tabi. “Providing alternative livelihood options to the forest-dependent community could be a life-saving blessing for pangolins and other endangered species.”
Bee-farming, pisciculture, piggery and orchard development, are few viable income-generating opportunities that should be provided to local communities.
“Eradicating widespread corruption is imperative,” recommended Ngueping.
According to several ground reports, when traffickers are caught, they often attempt to bribe law enforcement officials to escape the penalties. “We need to crack down on the clandestine network of wildlife traffickers. All Central African states should work collectively and reinforce law enforcement on ground.”
We are a voice to you; you have been a support to us. Together we build journalism that is independent, credible and fearless. You can further help us by making a donation. This will mean a lot for our ability to bring you news, perspectives and analysis from the ground so that we can make change together.
Comments are moderated and will be published only after the site moderator’s approval. Please use a genuine email ID and provide your name. Selected comments may also be used in the ‘Letters’ section of the Down To Earth print edition.