Saving our Pangolins

The pangolin is said to be one of the endangered species in the world. The animal is common in northern Uganda.

At the end of last month, the UN Convention of International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES), banned all commercial trade in pangolins and the African grey parrots. Not many people know about pangolins (olugave) because they do not thrive in captivity.

As such, you will not find them in any zoo. Instead, they live in the wild, making them more vulnerable to traffickers, thus the most endangered animal species in the world.

In Uganda, it would seem like the illegal trade in the animals is rising. This can be directly attributed to poverty among the communities that live around animal habitats. In April this year, police arrested four traffickers, among them a policeman, in Kitgum District.

Before that, in a crackdown that involved police, Uganda Wildlife Authority (UWA), and Natural Resource Conservation Network (NRCN) in Nwoya District, a couple was arrested while in possession of two pangolins and 25 kilogrammes of pangolin scales.

The hunt for a quick buck
Julius Odeke-Onyango, head of media relations NRCN, says so high is the demand for pangolin scales that a kilo costs $3,000 (about Shs10 million) on the international black market.

“That couple had scales worth $70,000 (about Shs240 million) and being average residents from northern Uganda, this money would have been a big blessing to them. The illicit trade is predominantly in northern Uganda because it has the vegetation that is conducive for pangolin breeding.”

Odeke-Onyango adds that in most cases, poachers sell the scales and the pangolins to middlemen at $50 (about Shs170,000) per kilo. It is the middlemen who make huge profits

by exporting the cargo at a very high price. The demand for pangolins has risen sharply in Asia, particularly China and Vietnam. It is estimated that every year, about 10,000 pangolins are illegally trafficked.

When a pangolin is threatened, it coils itself into a ball to protect its softer underside. In most cases, the poachers throw the coiled animal into saucepans of boiling water so that the scales fall off.

The scales are sold for medicinal purposes. They are believed to heal cancer, act as aphrodisiacs, relieve asthma, and rheumatism. Pangolin meat and fetuses are also delicacies, and because of the declining stocks in Asia, East Africa is the new hunting ground.

Current laws on endangered species
Pangolins are protected under CITES which means permits are required for their export. In the Uganda Wildlife Act 1996, (Clause 30), no person may engage in any of the activities under Section 29 (hunting, farming, ranching, trading in wildlife and wildlife products, and general extraction) or any other activities of a like nature which involve the utilisation of wildlife and wildlife products without first obtaining a grant of a wildlife use right.
However, because not much attention has previously been paid to pangolins, there are loopholes in the law. “The laws are good but enforcement is weak,” Odeke-Onyango says, adding, “It would seem that the Judiciary is unknowingly abetting the crime because convicted poachers are given light sentences or released on cash bail of about Shs2 million. How can you release someone at that amount of money yet he was arrested with 250kilogrammes of ivory or pangolin scales?”
Jossy Muhangi, the UWA spokesperson, says the Authority is carrying out massive sensitisation about pangolins now that they have been uplifted to Appendix 1 of CITES.

“We are sensitising the Judiciary about their protection status and the importance of tourism to the economy. We have also recruited our own prosecutors who specialise in wildlife crimes, to convict suspected poachers.

At the same time, we are advocating for stiffer penalties in the Wildlife Act. Currently, when someone is convicted they are jailed for five months or fined Shs200,000. We want the fine to be tagged to the value of the affected species. If it is an elephant, it should be a Shs20 million fine.”

Since poaching is rife in communities living around game parks and other animal habitats, these communities should be helped to learn lawful income generating activities that can boost their agricultural livelihoods.

Grey areas to take into account
However, these good intentions could be jeopardised by grey areas in the conservation sector.

On September 20, 2016, more than 50 conservations groups signed an open letter to Uganda Wildlife Education Centre (UWEC) and UWA expressing concern about a proposal on “Experimental research on captive breeding of pangolins in Uganda” submitted by Zhong Shu Yong of Asia-Africa Pangolin Breeding Research Centre Limited to UWEC.

“The Chinese only want to do research, not trade,” Muhangi says, continuing, “We licensed them and allowed them to capture 10 pangolins to experiment if they can breed in a captive environment in Bugolobi. We continually monitor them and if they violate the agreement, their license will be revoked.”

Conservationists were also not happy when in January last year UWA and the Ministry of Tourism and Antiquities cleared one Smith Ewa Maku to export seven tones of pangolin scales. The scales were estimated to cost $4.2 million (Shs11 billion) and a total of 21,000 pangolins had to perish to make up the six months deal.

About the African grey parrots
These parrots are mainly captured and sold as pets or for security purposes to Ugandans. They are also exported.

A total ban on international commercial trade in wild African grey parrots will help to protect this extraordinary species from extinction.

“It is surprising that, according to our research, top politicians and army officials are engaged in this illegal trade,” Odeke-Onyango says. In 2011, UWA released 204 grey parrots back into the wild after a six month quarantine period. They had been confiscated at Mpondwe Customs border point and at a farm in Kawuku on Entebbe Road.

The parrots were destined for export to Europe. More recently, six grey parrots were seized from Kigungu Landing Site in Entebbe, where they had been smuggled.