Chapter 2: Cameroon

Grassroots poachers find new clients

Criminal syndicates in Africa and Asia are working together — and competing — to meet the seemingly insatiable demand for pangolins in China and other markets. Over 30 journalists investigate how illegal pangolin trafficking is leading the species to become extinct.

Today, we’re sending you a dispatch from Cameroon.

You find our global report here:

Pangolins: Trafficked to Extinction

In 2017, Cameroon banned the trade in pangolins. But despite efforts by law enforcement and activists in the Central African nation, we discovered that business is still thriving in plain sight in some rural regions. Pangolin meat can be found in many smaller restaurants along highways and in markets.

A six-hour drive south of the capital Yaounde, in the small town of Djoum, we met a woman named Mango. She runs a bushmeat restaurant, selling wildlife meat including pangolins.

But she is better known for her side business as a pangolin scales trader. She collects pangolin scales in large quantities from other poachers to supply clients in big cities like Yaounde and Douala, who deal with Chinese clients there.
“I know it’s illegal,” she said, “but the business is good.”

At the market, we heard that prices used to be around $5 to $10 per kilogram three years ago. The price has since risen to $15.

Typically, there is a division of labour in poacher families such as hers, according to interviews with her and several of her competitors. Husbands hunt the pangolins and wives sell them on.

Local middlemen roam the region, meeting women like Mango at their homes and buying their catch. They deliver the aggregate to typically Asian businesspeople in bigger cities, who smuggle the produce to Asia, local poachers and wildlife advocates said.

Middlemen hide the scales in trucks that travel along changing smuggling routes to prevent detection by the authorities.

“People used to use small vehicles to smuggle pangolin scales from one region to another, but now more are putting scales inside heavy trucks to avoid attraction,” Mango said.

Live pangolins sold at a bushmeat market in Cameroon. Credit: Paul Anu / Green Echoes

With Cameroon’s southern border to Nigeria mostly shut, smugglers now tend to use air cargo shipments. Douala, a city with a sizeable Chinese community, is a favoured spot for smuggling scales out of Cameroon, advocates and local law enforcement said.

After reports of arrests and imprisonments, fewer people are talking openly about the trade.

Increasing demand is taking its toll. In rural Mindourou, we met Danielle, a chef who has been cooking pangolins and feeding travellers along long-distance routes for more than 10 years. She said that pangolins are harder to get, because of the over-poaching.

In the town of Bertoua, a six-hour drive east of Yaounde, we met traders who remain defiant that they will continue with their trade despite the risks of imprisonment. “The killing of pangolins will never stop,” said a woman named Mondi, a trader. “The community depends on the forest for their livelihood.”

If you have questions or tips, or would like to get in touch with our reporters and editors, just respond to this email. On Saturday, we’ll send you our dispatch from Nigeria.