Singapore has seized a record haul of pangolin scales worth $77 million, an indication that the shy, nocturnal anteater is on the brink of extinction.
The pangolin, also known as the scaly anteater, is said to be the most widely trafficked mammal in the world.
More than 26 tons (23 tonnes) of pangolin scales belonging to around 38,000 of the endangered mammals have been seized over the past week.
The scales, which were found in shipping containers, have been linked to four species of pangolins native to Africa.
Pangolin scales are made of keratin, the same material in human fingernails.
Its scales are in high demand in Asia for use in traditional Chinese medicine and their meat is also considered a delicacy in China and other Asian countries.
Singapore has seized more than 28 tons (25.4 tonnes) of pangolin scales belonging to around 38,000 of the endangered mammals over the past week. The global record has spurred calls for more protection for pangolins
Animal protection agencies say the cargo is the potential result of the killings of more than 40,000 of the endangered animals.
Officials found 14.2 tons (12.88 tonnes) of the scales hidden among packets of frozen beef last Wednesday.
Five days later, they found 14 more tons (12.7 tonnes) in 474 bags in another container.
The authorities said in a statement that the shipments, which were on route from Nigeria to Vietnam, were declared as cassia seeds.
‘It was estimated that on average 20 tons of scales were being smuggled each year,’ Crawford Allan, senior director at TRAFFIC, a wildlife trade monitoring network jointly set up by WWF and the International Union for Conservation of Nature, said in an email to Bloomberg.
‘Already, in 2019 we have seen nearly twice that being detected and seized. And those are just the shipments that get detected.’
‘The sheer size of these two latest seizures is unprecedented and will undoubtedly prove a major setback to the traffickers concerned,’ said Richard Thomas, of monitoring network Traffic.
He warned that the seizures themselves will not put the traffickers out of business.
‘The quantities of pangolins involved point to sourcing, processing and distribution on an industrial scale,’ he added.
Wildlife groups are concerned that the busts point to a jump in poaching of pangolins.
The pangolin is said to be the most widely trafficked mammal in the world. The scales, which were found in shipping containers, have been linked to four species of pangolins native to Africa
‘The World Health Organisation recently endorsed traditional medicine and the industry appears keen to grow this market, outside of China, Vietnam and beyond,’ said Neil D’Cruze, global wildlife adviser at World Animal Protection.
‘This is an alarming move for some wildlife species such as pangolins, as it poses a real conservation and animal welfare threat.’
Pangolins are an extremely lucrative catch, he said.
In rural communities where they are hunted, poachers can make up to the equivalent of a full year’s salary from catching just one pangolin.
Feeding ‘the insatiable demand’ are middlemen traffickers who also profit from the trade that is reaching more remote communities to hunt the animal, he added.
Paul Thomson, an official at the Pangolin Specialist Group, said it looks like the pangolin poaching has increased but figures were difficult to ascertain.
Officials found a record 14.2 tons (12.88 tonnes) of the scales hidden among packets of frozen beef last Wednesday. Five days later, they found 14 more tons (12.7 tonnes) in 474 bags in another container
‘The illegal trade in pangolin parts has been going on for decades. However, pangolins have typically been overlooked in terms of concerted conservation attention and action,’ Mr Thomson said.
‘This is changing thanks to growing awareness of pangolins. And this awareness has partly been driven by the high volumes of trafficking seen today.’
In February, Malaysian officials seized 30 tons (27.2 tonnes) of pangolin and pangolin products.
This included live and frozen pangolins and 361kg (795lbs) of their scales.
Earlier that month, Hong Kong said it had seized ivory tusks and 8.3 tons (7.5 tonnes) of pangolin scales belonging to as many as 13,000 pangolins.
The shipment, which originated in Nigeria, was bound for Vietnam.
Singapore made two markedly smaller pangolin scale busts in 2015 and 2016 amounting to 440kg (970lbs).
Those found to have illegally imported, exported or re-exported wildlife, including their parts, face a maximum punishment of two years in prison and a fine of 500,000 Singapore dollars (£282,000).
‘There has never been a more opportune moment for full and thorough international investigations and collaborations to take place to find out who has perpetrated these criminal acts and bring those behind them to face justice,’ Mr Thomas said.
WHAT IS THE GLOBAL COALITION TO END WILDLIFE TRAFFICKING ONLINE?
The world’s most endangered species are under threat from an unexpected source, the Internet, according to the World Wildlife Fund.
Advances in technology and connectivity across the world, combined with rising buying power and demand for illegal wildlife products, have increased the ease of exchange from poacher to consumer.
As a result, an unregulated online market allows criminals to sell illegally obtained wildlife products across the globe.
Purchasing elephant ivory, tiger cubs, and pangolin scales is as easy as click, pay, ship, they say.
To counter this, the world’s biggest e-commerce, technology, and social media companies have joined forces to shut down online marketplaces for wildlife traffickers.
The Global Coalition to End Wildlife Trafficking Online brings together companies from across the world in partnership with wildlife experts at WWF and Traffic, the wildlife trade monitoring network, as well as the International Fund for Animal Welfare.
This industry-wide approach aims to reduce wildlife trafficking online by 80 per cent by 2020.
WWF and partners are collaborating with tech companies across continents, including eBay, Google, Microsoft and Tencent, to unite the industry and maximise impact for reducing wildlife trafficking online.