Photo credit: WWF-Malaysia Stephen Hogg

Less Scales, More Pangolins

by Thomas Gomersall

In just a few short years, the trafficking of pangolins and their scales for traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) has unexpectedly become one of the most well-known and frequently discussed conservation issues today, leading to an increase in moves to conserve them. In 2017, a global ban on pangolin trade came into effect and earlier this year, the mainland Chinese government afforded all eight species the highest level of legal protection and the National TCM Administration removed all mention of them from the main text of the TCM pharmacopeia.

Photo credit: Brent Stirton Getty Images WWF-UK

Yet, pangolins still remain the world’s most trafficked mammals. And Hong Kong plays an important role as a transit point for smugglers travelling to the mainland from pangolin range countries in Southeast Asia and especially Africa, as well as having its own small domestic trade. Just this September, the Customs and Excise Department seized more than a tonne of pangolin scales here. Prior to that, between 2017 and 2018, the volume of pangolin seizures in Hong Kong jumped by 123 per cent.

Photo credit: Andy Isaacson WWF-US

The persistence of the illegal trade is most likely fueled by the existence of a so-called ‘legal’ one. Despite changes to the TCM pharmacopeia, pangolin products are still listed in its Appendices as ingredients in many TCM patent medicine formulae. This in turn allows for TCM practitioners, companies and designated hospitals to legally draw from stockpiles of old scales, much like the loophole for using ivory. However, as with ivory, there is no sign that these stockpiles are diminishing, strongly suggesting that they are being replenished with scales from recently killed pangolins. In order to make real progress on eradicating the pangolin trade, the loopholes that allow for its continuation must be closed.

“Mainland China has recently made great contributions to global efforts to protect pangolins,” says Dr David Olson, WWF-Hong Kong Conservation Director. “However, if we are to truly save the world’s pangolins, pangolins as ingredients in formulae should be stricken from the TCM Pharmacopeia appendices; the use of stockpiled pangolin scale should be prohibited; and all pangolin scale stockpiles should be burned to pre-empt laundering of scales.”

Photo credit: Suzi Eszterhas Wild Wonders of China WWF
Photo credit: Keith Arnold, WWF-US

For its part, Hong Kong must take much more proactive measures against its own role in the pangolin trade than it currently has; the most significant of which would be to include wildlife crimes under the Organised and Serious Crimes Ordinance. This would give the Agriculture, Fisheries and Conservation Department far greater powers to investigate wildlife crimes, disempower smuggling syndicates and prosecute the powerful crime bosses behind them.

Stricter sentences are also needed. Despite the maximum penalty for wildlife trafficking being a HK$10 million fine and 10 years’ imprisonment as of 2018, the harshest sentence for pangolin smuggling handed down since then was just 27 months in prison. Given that the scale shipment in question was worth an estimated HK$400,000, smugglers are more likely to risk such a lenient punishment.

Suzi Esterhas Wild Wonders of China WWF

If taken and implemented immediately, such measures would not only be a major boost to pangolin conservation, it would also send a clear message to wildlife crime syndicates and the world that the mainland and Hong Kong are truly committed to protecting endangered species and addressing one of the biggest causes of wildlife decline.

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