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 the last nine months, over 30 journalists across 14 countries and territories investigated how illegal pangolin trafficking is leading the species to become extinct.
Today, we’re sending you our dispatch from the Malaysian-Thai border.
You can find our global report here:
Next to a roadside food stall, sparse nighttime traffic whizzes by. Everything is tinged orange by streetlight. We are in Malaysia, a 40-minute drive south of the Thai border.
The pangolin smuggler we are meeting undercover arrives with his daughter, a child no older than six. It is a scene that is difficult to reconcile – she, dressed like a princess, complete with a tiara. He, a smuggler of pangolins and who knows what else.
"OK, let me explain," he said. "The goods come from Indonesia, and the towkays, they bid for the goods." He uses the colloquial term for buyer or “boss.”
"Goods from Indonesia, it must be at least a ton. So, one ton of goods and the bidding starts. Price starts at 300 ringgit per kilogram. Okay, how much can you pay?" He motions towards one of us. "OK, this one wants to pay 310 ringgit." He motions to another one of us. "Now this one wants to pay 320 ringgit. And another one wants to pay 350 ringgit."
"So the one who offered 350 ringgit will get the goods." (The price he cites equals $84.)
Over four months, we spoke to several people involved in wildlife smuggling like this man, ranging from smugglers to middlemen to poachers. Some interviews were made undercover, in which we claimed to be traders. The interviews show that the underground pangolin trade has matured into an illegal, but open market. Competition is fierce, and market forces decide on prices. Innovation differentiates those at the top.
A pangolin rescued from an online wildlife trader during our undercover investigation. The pangolin was later released into the jungle by the Department of Wildlife and National Parks Peninsular Malaysia.
Overwhelming demand for pangolins is driving an illicit trade that often slips past local law enforcement. Sometimes the reason is corruption, as evidenced by this man before us, who is not only a smuggler, but also a policeman. He asked not to be identified.
We had met him earlier at a magistrate courthouse, where he was standing trial for possession of 81 live pangolins.
According to the policeman-smuggler, the pangolin market is so competitive that syndicates are double-crossing each other to gain an advantage.
"So the one who offered 350 ringgit gets the goods, but the others know that the goods are arriving,” he said. “They might not know when exactly, but they know it is coming this week, or in two, three days' time. So they are ready."
By "ready", he means they are ready to sabotage the trader who won the bid. According to him, that is how he got caught. Someone from a rival syndicate leaked information to wildlife enforcement officers.
"When the goods are available, they already have their target," he said. "In fact, I have sabotaged someone from their team before."
Sources close to ongoing investigations say that the market is price-driven, and the syndicate that pays the highest can dominate the market.
Investigations show that live pangolins from Indonesia typically enter by boat, landing along the coast of the Malacca Straits, before being transported northward by car across the Thai border.
There, growing demand has changed the nature of the trade. Customs officials have become more aware of the trade, forcing smugglers to become more sophisticated. Smugglers crossing the border used to hire lorries, but are now increasingly using less detectable passenger vehicles, said Somkiat Soontornpitakkool, director of the Wild Fauna and Flora Protection Division of the Department of National Parks, Wildlife and Plant Conservation in Thailand.
This is corroborated by the enforcement authorities in Malaysia, who have shown us photos of passenger cars being outfitted with special air conditioning vents channelling cool air into the boot of the car. This keeps pangolins alive longer during the smuggling run.
The smugglers want to keep the pangolins alive because they can fetch higher prices for the meat. Often, we’re told, customers prefer to see the animal alive at restaurants. One restaurant chef we spoke to, who used to serve pangolins to tourists from China, said the usual practice was to slit the pangolin's throat in front of the customer, then use its blood in the cooking.
Syndicates smuggle pangolins in passenger cars outfitted with special air conditioning vents in the boot to keep the animals alive longer. © Department of Wildlife and National Parks, Malaysia
“The smuggling routes mainly lead to the provinces adjacent to the Mekong River in northeast Thailand – Nakorn Phanom, Mukdahan, and Nongkhai – before going to Laos, and then on to Vietnam and China,” said Somkiat.
Near the border, professional smugglers are hired to send the goods across the border. Investigations show that members of the police and other enforcement authorities are involved. Since 2012, three Malaysian policemen have been arrested for smuggling pangolins, including one officer who was arrested twice. All three worked, or are still working, at the same police station, the Kedah state police headquarters.
We were shown evidence by a government source that links some 12 enforcement officers to the pangolin trade, suggesting that there is a wider network of corruption.
These officers range from traffic cops to high-level border control officers, and the majority are based in the northern state of Kedah, bordering Thailand.
“We are taking this seriously,” says Kedah police chief Zainuddin Yaacob, when asked about evidence of corruption within his ranks.
“If [police officers] are charged or convicted, then we can take action by suspending them from duty. If they are convicted under criminal charges, then there is no option but to discharge them from service.”
While most live pangolins passing through Malaysia now originate in Indonesia, syndicates also used to source them from Malaysian forests.
“In the past, I was moving a lot of stock, hundreds of baskets,” boasted one pangolin trader. “I’m not lying to you, at least three tons a month, delivered right to my doorstep.” The trader is a middleman who previously sourced pangolins from indigenous communities living in the forest. He claims to have left the trade after being caught in 2014.
“There is less stock in Malaysia now, so they rely on Indonesian stock,” he said.
Over in Sabah, in East Malaysia, a pangolin- smuggling syndicate has the distinction of being the only known syndicate to deliver processed frozen pangolins.
A raid in February 2019 in Kota Kinabalu, Sabah, at two premises run by the same syndicate led to the discovery of a total of 27.9 tons of descaled, gutted, frozen pangolins in huge freezers. A further 361 kilograms of pangolin scales made the seizure the largest pangolin seizure ever recorded.
The way in which the pangolins were being packaged makes it likely they were meant for export, probably to China, a source familiar with the ongoing investigation said.
And there are signs that this syndicate has been operating for years.
In 2010, a Malaysian man was arrested on the coast of the southern Chinese port city of Zhuhai over the shipment of nearly 10 tons of frozen pangolins and pangolin scales on a fishing vessel. He was sentenced to life imprisonment, which was later reduced to 19 years due to good behavior. Four crew members of the ship, all of whom were Chinese nationals, were handed five- to 10-year sentences.
Investigations showed that the man's mobile phone contained a set of trade-related coordinates, including one pinpointing a location off the coast of Sabah, near Sepanggar Port in Kota Kinabalu. It is the same port area where the record seizure took place in February 2019.
Interviews with the man’s wife confirmed that he was involved in pangolin smuggling, and that he was based in Kota Kinabalu.
She insisted that her husband was not the mastermind behind the operation and that he was merely working for a syndicate helmed by a prominent businessman involved in the “frozen seafood business.”
People familiar with the inquiry said that the police are still investigating whether the same syndicate was behind the 2010 and 2019 cases.
Next week, we’ll send you reports from Indonesia and the Philippines.
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