No rest for pangolins: Trafficking rates spike while crime displaces to new regions

No rest for pangolins: Trafficking rates spike while crime displaces to new regions

World Pangolin Day 2019

Commonly referred to as the most trafficked mammal in the world, the plight of the pangolin looks bleak. While a proportion of the demand for pangolins is for its meat, the greatest value lies in its scales, used as an ingredient in traditional Chinese medicine. Sadly, this demand is driving transnational smuggling of pangolin scales to the extent we see today, the supply of which to illicit markets is undoubtedly increasing. Smuggling is occurring on a substantial and unprecedented level, illustrated recently by the seizure of over eight tonnes of scales in Hong Kong in January 2019. The shipment was valued at HKD 42 million and estimated to represent approximately 14,000 pangolins.  While in Malaysia, intelligence-led raids resulted in the discovery of 30 tonnes of locally-sourced pangolins and the identification of a processing factory in early February. The ability of pangolins to recover from this level of removal from the wild appears increasingly unlikely.

During the last five years, an estimated 140 tonnes of pangolin scales have been removed from illegal trade, and the rate at which they are being seized is growing significantly. Between 2014-2018 the average weight of scales per seizure has more than doubled (see Table 1). This means that in 2018 the weight of a shipment containing pangolin scales averages at under ¾ of a tonne, compared to around 200 kg in 2014. This increase indicates that the smuggling of pangolin scales is happening on a greater scale and is more organised, but also that the detection and reporting of smuggling may be improving.

Table 1: Average weight of pangolin scale seizures (2014-2018)
YearAverage weight per seizure (kg)

Geographical displacement of crime appears apparent. Hong Kong and China continue to be persistent hotspots for seizures of pangolin scales, recording 28.3 and 27.5 tonnes of seized scales respectively between 2014-2018. However, during the last three years, Viet Nam and Nigeria have moved into the third and fourth slots and account for more seizures than previously reported, particularly during the last 12 months (see Table 2).

Table 2: Four countries where the greatest volume of scales was seized by year (2014-2018)
Seizure Country20142015201620172018Total
Hong Kong1000139497513593328395
Viet Nam26322125188901465218535

We seek to address the organised criminality facilitating this ongoing, illegal trade. We gather information, analyse threats and inform enforcement agencies to target the criminals whose removal from the trade will affect the greatest impact upon crime. In April 2017, we launched Operation Pluto to investigate the organised trade in pangolins and their parts with a focus on the most relevant countries, including Viet Nam. In September 2018, we provided intelligence to the Vietnamese Environmental Police that led to the seizure of 780 kg of pangolin scales and the arrest of a prominent trader. A seizure such as this one, beyond a port, seldom occurs and it was the first such seizure by the Environmental Police in Viet Nam.

During Operation Pluto, our investigators have been offered substantial amounts of pangolin scales.

We continue to investigate this nexus with a focus on identifying the source of the scales and those key facilitators operating across the supply chain in order to target, remove and disrupt transnational organised wildlife crime that is driving pangolins to the verge of extinction.