Pangolins are the most trafficked animals in Southern Africa. The International Union for the Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources (IUCN) calls them “the most traded wild animal” in the world, yet many people have never seen or heard about them.
Photo by David Brossard
These scaly ant eaters, whose tongues can be long as their body, can be found throughout much of southern Africa, including in the mountain wilds of Swaziland. All eight of the world’s pangolin species — four of which live in Africa — are listed on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species, victims of poaching as demand for pangolin meat and scales has shot up in parts of Asia, particularly in China and Vietnam. Today in Swaziland, where an estimated 2,500 pangolins are poached every year, you are more likely to see a pangolin in the back of a smuggler´s truck on its way to a boat in the Indian Ocean than you are in the wild.
In a country where average public wages are low, some in Swaziland have turned to pangolin hunting to supplement their earnings. “I hate to say it, but increasing food [insecurity] forces rural communities to hunt and capture pangolins for profit,” says Richard Mlotshwa, head veterinary manager for the Endangered Animals Rehabilitation taskforce at the state run Swaziland Tourism Authority.
Aiyoba Namaqa, an independent economist who works closely with the Trade Union Congress of Swaziland (which has been banned from operating in the country because the government says it incites workers to challenge the king’s authority) agrees, and thinks the situation could get even worse. “Hunger, worsened by El Niño… threatens to leave 20 percent of the country´s rural dwellers grappling for food in 2016,” she says. “No wonder some close to forests are hunt pangolins to [sell] and buy food.”
A kilogram of pangolin skin can fetch up to $500 on the black market in South Africa´s port cities, where the majority of the pangolins trafficked from Swaziland pass through on their way to Mozambique and finally Asia. “So it is tempting even for rogue Swaziland wildlife wardens to kill or capture these little animals in times when their regular salaries are not paid,” Mlotshwa says.
Live pangolins aren’t worth quite as much. “When it is sold alive, the pangolin body fetches a lower price of $240 on the illegal markets,” Mlotshwa says. “So peeling of the scales of its skin is profitable for the traffickers.”
Tradition could spell doom for pangolins, too. For example, in it is believed that “A king or chief who eats a pangolin liver and drinks its blood can expect to live until 80 years without facing a challenge to his authority,” says Antony Tladi, a prominent Catholic priest in Swaziland’s capital, Mbabane, who is working with the Swaziland Tourism Authority to promote public awareness of trafficking.
“Citizens who bring the finest pangolin scales and skin to chiefs are rewarded with pieces of land,” adds Nduna Maseko, an activist from the Swaziland Network of Human Rights Council, whose activities are restricted by the Swaziland monarchy. “This fuels illegal poaching of the animals.”
Karim, 39, a self-confessed pangolin trader in Manzini, the second biggest city in Swaziland, says he has smuggled 35 live pangolins out of the country this year alone. He withheld his surname for fear of repercussions, but explained that most of the pangolins feed demand in Asia. “There are lots of Chinese visitors and businessmen visiting Mozambique,” he says. “For a fresh pangolin they pay $400 if it is female. They say they like its milk and blood as an aphrodisiac in Hong Kong or Taiwan. They claim pangolin scales cure cancer, measles, and infertility in elderly women.”
He grapples with his mobile phone. “I have 22… pangolin buyers in my books. Sometimes we kill the pangolin and stuff its stomach with soil to increase its weight and price.”
Major Frao Cuessa, an inspector with the Mozambique port police, has witnessed the trafficking first hand, explaining that in Maputo, his team “captured four pangolin smugglers from Swaziland… and rescued 50 animals destined for [Asia]” from January 2016 to now.
Chuene, 44, an out of work bricklayer, who declined to give his surname, says he is a “hacker” for Karim, the trader. Hackers do the grisly job of hunting, trapping, and killing pangolins in the forests of rural Swaziland.
“When police catch you with dead or live pangolins in the morning, they arrest and release you on a bribe of $70,” he says, laughing. “In the evening they sell back to you the same pangolin for $30.”
These claims are not surprising. Freedom House, a watchdog organization dedicated to the expansion of freedom and democracy, ranked Swaziland as “not free” in 2015. The small African nation received a score of zero out of twelve for “functioning of government,” in part due to corruption problems.
Mlotshwa, with the Tourism Authority, says local police departments in Swaziland recorded 540 pangolin poaching and trafficking cases in 2015. Many other cases go undetected — it’s suspected that 2,500 pangolins are actually smuggled out of Swaziland each year. In comparison, in South Africa, where wildlife is better monitored, only 165 pangolin cases were recorded in 2015. Globally, the IUCN estimates that 1 million pangolins were trafficked between 2000 and 2012.
The Swaziland Tourism Authority is working to curb poaching, and is training a growing group of informers to report on pangolin traffickers. But Namaqa, the economist, doesn’t have much hope. “Only the low-level, hungry criminals are arrested,” she says. “The big players enjoy shocking immunity. They even keep pangolins as pets in rich homes as a gift for wealthy visitors.”
Tladi, the activist priest, believes that intense media coverage of other trafficked animals like elephants and rhinos has overshadowed pangolins in the media, as well as among celebrities who can help draw attention to conservation issues.
As rhino poaching declines slightly around Southern Africa, maybe conservation publicity will finally shift to include the plight of smaller endangered animals like pangolins.