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 Palawan, Philippines.
You can find our global report here:
In July, a Philippine court convicted three men of violating the country’s wildlife protection law. They were caught in possession of 10 Philippine pangolins, a domestic subspecies, at a checkpoint in Tagaytay City, Cavite, some 60 kilometres south of the capital Manila.
While the case was called the first successful conviction of wildlife traffickers from Palawan – where the Philippine pangolin is endemic – the penalty for the crime was light. The court sentenced each poacher to three months of imprisonment and a fine of 20,000 pesos, or about $385. In August, the three men posted bail and filed a petition for probation.
Emerson Sy, executive director of the Philippine Center for Terrestrial and Aquatic Research, said that given such penalties, the law itself is not a deterrent to poachers.
“What’s noteworthy is that the same people are involved [in the illegal trade]. For example, one main buyer who is a foreign national has already been caught many times but still operates. Because the penalty in illegal wildlife trade – it’s bailable – if a poacher gets caught, he only posts bail, then he can get out,” Sy said.
Ten pangolins seized by the Philippine authorities in Tagaytay City in June. 2019 Three men were arrested. © Department of Environment and Natural Resources, Philippines
Sy is one of the authors of a report that analyzed seizure data in the Philippines from 2001 to 2017. The report, published in 2018 by TRAFFIC, a global NGO working to investigate the wildlife trade, found 38 seizure incidents involving 667 pangolins. The figure is small compared with volumes reported elsewhere, but considering that the populations of Philippine pangolins have declined by more than 50% over 21 years, it is a significant number.
Sy said the seizure data they analyzed from different sources may just be “the tip of the iceberg.”
“The Philippine pangolin can only be found in the Philippines, in the province of Palawan, so the habitat is really small,” he said. “Any disturbance based on additional poaching and so on has a huge effect on them.”
TRAFFIC researchers believe that demand has increased over the past decade. One factor, Sy said, is the increasing demand, especially in Metro Manila, where pangolin meat is sold as a luxury food item and its scales are sold for traditional medicine.
The three men who were caught in Tagaytay City smuggled the 10 pangolins out of Palawan for illegal trade in the capital.
But Sy explained that domestically, most people who consume pangolin meat are still foreigners “because [Filipinos] don’t have a tradition of eating pangolins.” Some locals also consume it, he said, but only when they happen to encounter it, as they wouldn’t intentionally look for it.
Pangolin meat can sell for US$3 to US$5 per kilogram, while scales sell from US$130 to US$190 per kilogram. Meanwhile, the TRAFFIC report said that in Metro Manila, live or frozen pangolins and cooked pangolins sell for US$233 and US$272, respectively.
“The poachers, the ones who hunt the pangolin, are usually Filipinos. The middlemen, those who go to the communities to ask them to hunt, could be either Filipinos or foreign nationals. The middleman will then pass it on to the wholesalers or the consolidators, who could be either a Filipino or a foreign national. That consolidator could be the one to sell the pangolin directly, or there’s another layer from another location, for example, in Metro Manila. From that point, that goes directly to the buyer,” Sy explained.
The majority of seizures occur around Palawan, and in the Metro Manila area, where there is increasing demand for its meat and scales. Data: TRAFFIC
However, as Sy pointed out, those in the “lower levels” of the smuggling chain – the poachers and traffickers – are often the “sacrificial lambs” who get arrested by law enforcement.
Data from the Palawan Council for Sustainable Development (PCSD), the agency mandated to implement the Philippines’ wildlife law in the island province, showed that 33 people were arrested in relation to the illegal pangolin trade from 2010 to 2018. At least 16 criminal cases were filed during the same period.
“We have to find the ones who order the hunting, those who finance it. Because if you don’t arrest them, poaching will never end,” Sy said.
In 2016, the Philippines proposed uplisting the Philippine pangolin to Appendix I of CITES (Convention of International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora). The government proposal said that the Philippine pangolin is “threatened with extinction and is detrimentally affected by international trade and habitat loss,” and that it “has been documented in international trade with China and Malaysia, and possibly with Vietnam.”
The 2018 TRAFFIC report, meanwhile, said that international trade routes could not be determined from the seizure data that the authors analyzed because “many of the records are without background information aside from the location of seizure and type and quantity of pangolin parts seized.”
“Foreign nationals (for example from mainland China and Taiwan) residing in the country have also been implicated in several seizures,” the report said, adding that it remains uncertain “whether this feeds a local market catering to visitors and/or foreign nationals residing in the country or an international market.”
Sy pointed out, however, that local demand for pangolin scales used in traditional medicine is not as significant as overseas demand. “The demand is mainly in China and Vietnam, where the scales are used,” he said.
With all these challenges on multiple fronts, there is still much to be done. There is also a lack of public awareness about the Philippine pangolin, which is considered one of the least studied species of pangolin.
In 2018, different conservation groups in the country came together and designed a 25-year roadmap for the conservation of the Philippine pangolin. The PCSD will conduct a study to identify the population strongholds of the Palawan pangolin, with the end goal of declaring these areas as critical habitats for further protection.
On Saturday, we’ll send you our report from the Indian-Myanmar border.
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