Pangolins: Fightback to save most illegally traded mammal

What you need to know:

  • Uganda has three out of the four pangolin species found in Africa.
  • However, authorities say all these three species have been targeted in Uganda, with dealers and local poachers involved in the business with the hope of making money, writes Benjamin Jumbe.

Uganda is greatly endowed with wildlife, flora and fauna. This diversity is, however, threatened by both poaching and wildlife trade.

Key among the most targeted species are the pangolins because of their scales. These insect-eating mammals covered in overlapping scales trace their name to the Malay word ‘penggulung,’ that translates to roller.

According to Traffic, a wildlife trade monitoring NGO, pangolins have been heavily targeted for poaching and trafficking in Uganda. 

The organisation’s data indicates that between 2012 and 2016, nearly 1,400 pangolins were seized.

Rebecca Sandoval, a conservationist and the cofounder of Biodiversity Alliance—a non-profit organisation, says—pangolins are indeed “still the most trafficked mammals in the world.” 

She grimly adds that “pangolin scales and other pangolin parts” have eclipsed ivory in the tally box of wildlife seizures.

In 2019, the Uganda Revenue Authority (URA) conducted a law enforcement operation targeting a Vietnamese wildlife trafficking network and seized 3.2 tonnes of ivory and 423kg of pangolin scales with an estimated value of $2.3m (Shs8.2b) and $1.2m (Shs4.3b) respectively.

Customs officials at the Uganda-South Sudan border at Elegu discovered and impounded the consignment in three containers concealed in logs of wood and wax in transit from the Democratic Republic of Congo to Asia.

Prosecuted cases involving seizures of pangolin scales gradually increased as per Uganda Wildlife Authority (UWA) prosecution reports from seven in financial years 2018/2019 to eight in 2019/2020 and 10 in 2020/2021.

Several reasons have been advanced for the increased interest in trafficking this unique mammal and its products. Its profitability in the Asian market and belief that the scales have medicinal powers particularly stand out.

Long arm of the law
According to the #WildEye East Africa data map by InfoNile and Oxpeckers Investigative Environmental Journalism, two men were arrested in Kibaale District on July 6, 2020 with one live pangolin following a tip off by local residents. The duo was charged with unlawful possession of protected species.

In another case, on May 28, 2021, UWA arrested four people with three live pangolins around Kachumbala Sub-county in Bukedea District. 

Fred Kiiza, the chief warden of Mt Elgon National Park, said the suspects had been arrested around the market in Kachumbala.

In March 2022, police in Amuru District rescued two pangolins and arrested a dealer in Pabo. One of the pangolins was, however, injured after being ensnared. It was delivered to the national wildlife hospital and quarantined at Uganda Wildlife Conservation Education Centre (UWEC), Entebbe, where it has been receiving treatment.

“We can now see a very good prognosis of the case, and very soon after treatment and rehabilitation, we shall consider releasing the pangolin back to the wild,” Dr Victor Musiime, the veterinary officer at UWEC, said.

Dr Racheal Mbabazi, the manager of the Animal and Horticulture Department at UWEC, said pangolins are part of the country’s wildlife.

“Every wildlife plays a role in the ecosystem; they are not just there. Pangolins help us eat some insects, control the population, and of course people come from all over the world to see these animals, which fetches money for the country, and so we should preserve wildlife,” she said.

International crime networks
Vincent Opyene, the chief executive officer of Natural Resources Conservation Agency, an NGO partnering with UWA to combat wildlife crime, says the problem of trade in pangolins is increasing worldwide “and if not controlled, can easily lead to extinction of the specific species that are traded in.”
There are eight species of pangolins in the world, with four found in Asia and four in Africa.

Uganda has three out of the four pangolin species found in Africa, namely Ground Pangolin, Giant Pangolin and the White Bellied Pangolin, which is also known as the Tree Climbing Pangolin.
Opyene says all these three species have been targeted in Uganda, with dealers and local poachers involved in the business with the hope of making money.

“Every time we arrest poachers involved in this, they keep telling us it will go for about $150 (Shs532,000) per kilo, and yet I haven’t come across anyone willing to buy pangolin scales at that amount; it is just a myth they keep believing that that market is there,” he says.

Currently, there is no legal market for internationally traded pangolin scales and meat because of an existing ban on any commercial trade in the same.

Parties to the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES), meeting in Johannesburg, South Africa, for the 17th Conference of the Parties (COP17) in 2016, voted to ban international commercial trade of all eight species of pangolin.

In December 2021, the Natural Resources Conservation Network (NRCN), together with UWA, conducted an operation in which 900kg of pangolin scales, 200kg of ivory and other species items were recovered in a facility in Nakirama Village in Nsangi, Wakiso District. 

Two suspects, including a 59-year-old Senegalese national—and a security guard were arrested. 
“The state attorney has given us directives on what to do for the file to be sanctioned,” Opyene revealed.
Since 2013, NRCN has assisted in prosecuting more than 5,000 criminals, and their investigations have led to the arrest of more than 8,000 others.

The findings and conclusions from the Wildlife Justice Commission’s (WJC) Intelligence Development Unit point to organised crime networks operating on an industrial scale.

According to the commission, between 2016 and 2019, an estimated 206.4 tonnes of pangolin scales were intercepted and confiscated globally from 52 seizures. 

The WJC believes a significant proportion of smuggling is not detected.
The organisation’s analysis of the seizure data over the four-year period further shows an increase in trafficking at unprecedented levels with nearly two-thirds of the tonnage seized—132.1 tonnes—detected between 2018 and 2019. 

It further noted that in 2019, the average weight of a single pangolin scale shipment was 6.2 tonnes, compared with 2.2 tonnes three years earlier.

Slap on the wrist
Ms Sandoval, the pangolin conservation project lead, says there is still need to sensitise the public about the new wildlife law in place, arguing that many do not seem to appreciate the importance of conserving wildlife and the heavy penalties in the law. 

The highest penalty in the new Wildlife Act 2019 is a maximum fine of Shs20b or life imprisonment or both for an offence related to a wildlife species classified as critically endangered.

“I think we need more education, more awareness of how these animals benefit communities, tourism, conservation, and I think we need more awareness on wildlife law. People need to understand that there is a wildlife law and huge consequences if you are caught [on the wrong side of the law],” Sandoval says.

She adds that illegal wildlife trade being transnational, there is need to do more to disrupt the trafficking network.

“We need a network to fight the criminal network. More collaboration and sharing information with the public is needed on the importance of pangolins and the need to protect them,” she says.

However, the penalties in the prosecution cases involving pangolins by the UWA, from Financial Year 2018/2019 to 2020/2021, are generally much more lenient.

Penalties in 44 cases involving pangolins generally ranged from fines between Shs200,000 to Shs3m, and between three to 24 months in jail. There were just two cases involving jail time longer than one year, one of these mandating imprisonment only if the convicted could not pay the fine.

For example, a convict in a case involving one pangolin carcass in FY 2019/2020 was sentenced to a fine of just Shs300,000. 

Another convict in a case involving one live pangolin in FY2020/2021 was sentenced to a fine of Shs1m. A convict in a case in the same year involving 3.62kg of pangolin scales was fined Shs2m. Another case involving one live pangolin was sentenced to just three months in prison.

The illegal trade in wildlife and trafficking of animals is often made possible by the failure of some individuals within law enforcement circles to operate professionally. Corruption particularly stands out.
“When people who are supposed to be supporting turn around and start working for the traffickers, the wrong guys, then investigations cannot succeed,” Mr Opyene from NRCN admits.

He, nevertheless, adds that they have informants who help them identify corruption and failings within enforcement agencies and ensure that these are reported and justice is served.

Way forward
To improve prosecution, Mr Opyene recommends “to have a prosecution-led investigation whereby the prosecution is brought on board from the start of the investigations so that when concluded, the suspect is produced before court.”

This is to prevent the issue of suspects getting off the hook due to lack of evidence, as prosecution asks for more time to investigate the case.

George Owoyesigire, the acting director of wildlife conservation in the Ministry of Tourism, Wildlife and Antiquities, says the ministry is concerned about poaching in general and specifically the illegal harvesting of the pangolin.

“We saw some considerable poaching around 2015 when we confiscated about 2,000kg of pangolin scales. But because of concerted efforts put in place to address the issue, poaching has since been scaled down,” he says.

He says some of the cases of seizures and confiscations today reflect the level of effort the government has put in place to fight the vice.

“We have deployed different mechanisms and interventions to capture and arrest these criminals. So you will see an increase in confiscations of ivory, pangolin scales and hippo teeth, but this is as a result of intense surveillance, law enforcement and intelligence,” he adds.

Owoyesigire says whereas they initially had challenges in handling of the wildlife cases, the establishment of the Utilities, Standard and Wildlife Court in May 2017 has helped bring to the fore the profile of wildlife crimes.

Owoyesigire says at continental, regional and national levels, there are strategies for combating illegal wildlife trade.

“Provisions under this treaty compel us as member states to work together to conserve natural resources and also fight illegal wildlife and cross-border trade. So, we have several mechanisms to make sure we curtail this growing threat,” he adds.

In March, state prosecutors from 11 countries in eastern Africa formally pledged to coordinate efforts to combat cross-border wildlife trafficking and money laundering.

To further strengthen efforts to combat illegal wildlife crime, UWA has kick-started the development of a curriculum for wildlife crime, intelligence, investigations and law enforcement. 

UWA executive director Sam Mwandha expresses optimism that, in years to come, the authority will have the best workforce in wildlife protection and fighting wildlife crime in the region.

“This process will result in us having a highly skilled workforce in the East African region, which will help the country fight wildlife crime. Once we have a highly skilled force, criminals will hate their trade and wildlife numbers will increase,” he says.

Joshua Karamagi, the investigations manager at UWA, says this is the start of a long journey.
“We are moving towards ensuring we have a professional force capable of handling wildlife crime intelligence gathering and persecution. This will enhance our fight against wildlife crime,” he says.

Support for development and production of this story came from InfoNile, in partnership with Oxpeckers, with funding from the Earth Journalism Network. Additional reporting by Ruth Mwizeere.

The law
Under Article 116 of the Treaty for establishment of the East African Community in 1999, the partner states undertook to develop a collective and coordinated policy for the conservation and sustainable utilisation of wildlife and other tourist sites.
It states that in particular, the partner states.
(a) Harmonise their policies for the conservation of wildlife, within and outside protected areas.
(b) Exchange information and adopt common policies on wildlife management and development.
(c) Co-ordinate efforts in controlling and monitoring encroachment and poaching activities.
(d) Encourage the joint use of training and research facilities and develop common management plans for trans-border protected areas. 
(e) Take measures to ratify or accede to, and, implement relevant international conventions.

Ex-poachers speak out
Poaching of pangolins is mostly taking place around protected areas such as Murchison Falls National Park. 

In Nwoya District, which borders Murchison Falls National Park, Sunday Monitor and InfoNile engaged two former poachers to establish what prompted them into the business. 

One, who preferred anonymity, said he started poaching in 2009 because he was looking for school fees.

“During all those years, I had been involved in poaching. I was arrested about five times during which I was taken to Masindi [court]. I was jailed for three months at Isima prison,” he said.

He added: “I stopped poaching in 2019 because I had lost a lot of land…whenever I was arrested, they would sell a piece of land to get me out, and secondly, some people were even killed.”

He also said they never got to meet the people who come from abroad to buy the pangolin but would always deal with their collaborators on the ground, who would instruct them on what to get. The five pangolins he poached did not, however, bring the dividends he expected.

Another ex-poacher, 57-year-old Charles Oryem, a resident of Olwiyo Trading Centre in Patira East Village, Parungo Sub-county, said he started poaching in 2012, but he abandoned the practice in 2016 after several arrests and loss of money. 
Oryem’s turning point was when he was shot at by UWA rangers in 2016. He was severely injured.

An NGO that was supporting the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) war victims came to Oryem’s rescue, “spending Shs25m on my treatment.” 

He advised UWA to target groups in communities around the park and reformed poachers in order to tackle the problem.

“This will help save many animals from dying,” he said, adding, “UWA should come on ground and talk to us [ex-poachers] and we give them advice on what to do to stop poaching.”

Support for development and production of this story came from InfoNile, in partnership with Oxpeckers, with funding from the Earth Journalism Network. Additional reporting by Ruth Mwizeere.