Pangolins and TRAFFIC
[Unpublished – 2009]

The pangolin Manis temminckii is a protected species in Namibia and is increasingly vulnerable to threats posed by traditional and modern life. A recent report published in two of the daily newspapers described a pangolin that had died in the hands of a civil servant of possible starvation. This was not this month’s only known case concerning pangolins. Near Tsumeb a pangolin offered for sale resulted in the Protected Resource Unit arresting the potential seller. Where that particular pangolin was released, what scientific data was collected and whether or not the seller will be fined at the current maximum of N$ 300.00 are all unknowns. In Namibia there is no well-coordinated approach and no central data bank for events concerning these protected and endangered animals and other wildlife events.

Pangolins are found throughout the tropical and grassland regions of Africa and Asia. Their name is derived from a Malay word meaning to roll up. This ability, together with the large hard scales that cover the skin, powerful claws, an amazing sense of smell developed to find insects and a tongue that can accurately extend for up to 40 centimeters in very large specimens have given pangolins a place in traditional medicine both in Africa and in Asia.

Pangolins lack teeth and have no ability to chew. They use their long tongues made sticky from large salivary glands to gather insects. Of the four African pangolin species only one is found in Namibia and this species survives on ants and termites. Their defense mechanism, rolling into a tight ball and snapping their razor-sharp scales to a tight position if they are touched, leaves them as easy prey animals to collect for bush-meat or medicine.

The extent of the demand for pangolins in Namibia is an unknown. However on mainland China the demand for pangolins, meat considered a delicacy, and scales used for promoting blood circulation breast milk, has increased in proportion to their human population.

TRAFFIC is an international wildlife trade-monitoring network. Reports from them cite 6 500kg of pangolin meat seized in South- east Asia from 2007 to 2009. In a separate incident in 2008, 38 tonnes of whole frozen pangolins were seized and this consignment included African pangolins.

According to TRAFFIC, the illegal trade in Asian pangolins that are destined for mainland China’s market has caused their disappearance in large parts of Cambodia, Vietnam and Laos. A relevant comment from the acting director of TRAFFIC for Southeast Asia, Chris Shepard: “Pangolins, like the laws designed to protect them, lack bite.” Even though a law prohibiting any trade of Pangolins in Asia has been in existence since 2002 illegal activities continue. All Asian pangolin species are today severely endangered by illegal trade to mainland China.

In Africa there are four species of pangolin but only one occurs in Namibia. Little or perhaps more accurately, nothing is known about the extent, size or safety of its population. What is known is that there is an ongoing attempt at illegal trade and continual demand for scales to be used by traditional healers. In captivity the Namibian species is close to impossible to feed, as they will not adjust to an unnatural diet.

Over the past two decades NARREC (Namibia Animal Rehabilitation Research and Education Centre) has received about 40 pangolins. In each case these animals have been confiscated from very badly managed environments. Some confiscated animals have had their scales chipped for use by healers. Sometimes the animals will have simply been tied inside a sack for days or weeks. Assessing the strength and body condition of these confiscated animals is necessary before release. The release site must also be very well considered, as the compromised animals need both safety as well as immediate, sufficient, accessible natural food.

Pangolins are affected by threats that specifically target them and by activities that affect them as non-targeted victims. At the few traditional healers that have been visited by NARREC pangolin scales were available. It may be assumed that there has been an increase in numbers of animals or scales used by traditional healers in Namibia because the number of traditional healers, many unregistered, has increased. Because of their roll-up behavior pangolins are easy prey for people but how many are caught for the pot is a complete unknown. The two most obvious non-target activities affecting pangolins are chemical insecticides and electric fences. Insecticides used in agriculture and for locust control are known to be a serious threat to pangolins. The bottom wire of an electric fence will kill pangolins. Using their natural defense a pangolin will curl into a ball as a reaction to the electric shock and then be killed by repeated pulses of electricity.

Although it was reported in the Algemeine Zeitung and the Republikein that the Ministry of Environment and Tourism (MET) may sell the skins of dead pangolins on auction, this may further undermine protection of this endangered species. This situation may be exacerbated by current weak legislation and problematic law enforcement on the illegal capture, holding and trade of these (and other) wildlife. CITES (Convention for International Trade in Endangered Species) has noted that it is when permits are issued for a specific trade that illegal activities become problematic as permits are more easily illegally forged.

Namibia is internationally known for amazing positive strides in conservation and eco-management. The combined efforts of government and non-government organizations have all led to new partnerships, greater awareness and an increase in many species population sizes. It is however the less known species as well as those that have a market in highly populated countries such as China that are at risk of vanishing before we are aware of the situation. This remains especially significant whilst Namibia waits for the finalization of the Parks and Wildlife Act and the updating of supportive regulations.

Liz Komen