Chinese demand for pangolins has created an international smuggling network that stretches all the way to Africa. Countries bordering China, such as Myanmar and Nepal, are often used as transit routes, with smugglers benefiting from their lack of resources to properly enforce anti-trafficking laws. Pangolins are also native to many of these countries, and poaching is a tempting way to make a bit of extra cash, especially for people in poorer, rural regions. But are they the real criminals here? What about the big-time smugglers at the top of the pyramid? How much are they making, and what’s the best way to stop them?
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More from this series:
Episode 1: Why are pangolins so prized in China?
Xu Jiaming, the Pangolin Reports
Tin Htet Paing, Myanmar Now
Kunda Dixit, Nepali Times
Sonia Awale, Nepali Times
Wahyu Dhyatmika, Tempo.co
Executive producer and host: Marcy Trent Long
Producer and host: Bonnie Au
Assistant producer: Amber Hou
Sound engineer: Chris Wood
Intro/outro music: Alex Mauboussin
News report 1: A victory in the battle against poaching. Chinese customs agents have seized 13 tonnes of scales from the highly endangered pangolin…
News report 2: It’s estimated that 2,000 pangolins were killed for their scales, which are valued at nearly US$50 million…
News report 3: (Chinese) Authorities have cracked a large smuggling case involving endangered wildlife products. Over 18 people were arrested.
News report 4: The Royal Malaysian Customs have seized another illegal shipment of pangolin scales that were being smuggled…
News report 5: Vietnamese authorities have seized more than two tonnes of illegal pangolin scales…
Marcy Trent Long: Pangolins are the most trafficked mammals in the world. These prehistoric creatures have been around for over 80 million years. Yet China’s demand is pushing them to the edge of extinction. As lucrative wildlife trafficking to supply this demand goes global, more pangolins are being intercepted by customs officials in an effort to stop this illegal trade.
In this episode, we look at the smuggling trade routes in Asia that feed Chinese demand for pangolins, and how this trafficking is impacting the social fabric of these countries.
Welcome to Sustainable Asia. I’m Marcy Trent Long. This is Season Seven: the Pangolin Reports.
In episode one, Bonnie Au – a Hong Kong-based journalist – and I went undercover with two reporters in Myanmar and China to find out why pangolins are so sought after by Chinese. It turns out that pangolin meat is considered a delicacy and pangolin scales are still being sold in China markets for medicinal purposes.
Bonnie Au: But this demand for pangolins could be changing as researchers in China identified pangolins as a possible link to the Wuhan coronavirus outbreak.
Marcy: Earlier this year, China announced a temporary ban on all wildlife trade. NGOs around the world, and many Chinese on social media, are now calling for a permanent wildlife trade ban in China.
Bonnie: And this is a drastic change from, let’s say, a year ago, when consuming wildlife like pangolins was still pretty much an accepted practice for many Chinese.
Marcy: We ended the last episode with a clip from a Burmese trader showing her pangolin for sale and then slapping it back into its basket. But how did that pangolin get to Myanmar? And will it eventually make its way into China?
Bonnie: That brings us back to journalists like Xu Jiaming, a lead reporter with the Pangolin Reports. After we left Jiaming in south Myanmar’s Yangon city in episode one, he headed over to Mandalay in the central part of the country, where he found shopkeepers that were willing to smuggle pangolin scales into China.
This shopkeeper says he can transport the scales from Mandalay to the border city of Muse, and can bring it across into China’s Ruili city in Yunnan province. Many other shops he spoke to also mentioned this route.
So Jiaming says that Ruili in China’s Yunnan province is one of the main routes to trade illegally, and in fact, it is also a significant route for legal trade between China and Myanmar. This is quite interesting, because most illegal trade in Myanmar seems to happen in remote rural areas, not through bustling cities like Muse and Ruili.
So earlier, the shopkeeper guaranteed that he could help Jiaming transport scales across the border. But that was about it. When Jiaming asked to ship to other cities in China, the shop owner seemed hesitant. Jiaming asked again, and the shop owner gave a definite “no”.
Xu Jiaming: Most of the traders we spoke to said they could help us ship to China. But only to somewhere just across the border, like Ruili. When we asked if they could get the goods to Kunming or Guangzhou, they didn’t think it would be easy. China has a lot of border police and customs checkpoints, especially along well-known smuggling routes [in] Yunnan. For example, there are three checkpoints now inside China from Ruili to Kunming, and this really gives smugglers a headache.
Marcy: So it seems, Bonnie, that most of these traders are willing to try smuggling the pangolins across the Myanmar-Chinese border. But they know that within China, it becomes too difficult.
Bonnie: Right. And it doesn’t just end with Ruili and Muse. There's another hotspot for the smuggling of pangolins from Myanmar into China's Yunnan province. It's the city of Mongla, which is south of Ruili near Laos. Tin Htet Paing, a senior reporter and editor with Myanmar Now, a leading Burmese online media outlet, described Mongla to me.
Tin Htet Paing: Mongla is like a special zone. It’s controlled by one ethnic armed group. So they have their own police. The police [are] Mongla police, not [the] Myanmar police force.
Mongla is a very famous border town for wildlife trade, wildlife trafficking. It’s a border city with China, and is very notorious [for things] like gambling, prostitution and wildlife [trafficking]. These are the three things the city [is] famous for.
Bonnie: And Jiaming also confirmed that these towns like Mongla are kind of independently controlled.
Jiaming: The Chinese and Myanmar governments have a relatively large problem. There are many places in northern Myanmar that use civilian land forces led by local armed forces, and are basically beyond the control of the two countries. This is a big problem and difficult to solve.
Bonnie: Myanmar, with its infamous towns like Mongla, does not have the enforcement structure needed to stop pangolin trafficking. This smuggling hub makes it convenient for illegal traders to thrive.
Marcy: Tin and Jiaming said that pangolin products were out in the open and aimed at Chinese customers in Mongla. Most people there spoke Mandarin, and use the Chinese yuan as their preferred currency.
Bonnie: Since the new law in Myanmar classifying Chinese and Malayan pangolins in the most protected species category, government figures show that only six people have been convicted under that law since May 2018. In the case of Mongla, the lack of law enforcement makes the new laws rather pointless.
Marcy: And Myanmar isn’t the only country that is struggling to regulate this illegal trade. Other countries bordering China are also battling in their own ways pangolin trafficking.
Kunda Dixit: Nepal has always been a transit country for smuggling of wildlife.
Marcy: That was Kunda Dixit, editor for the Nepali Times, and also an editor of the Pangolin Reports based in Nepal.
Kunda: What actually I was surprised about was how the Chinese have built a network within Nepal, in rural areas, to collect these things, and how international it is.
Marcy: Meaning it’s not just local poachers involved in the smuggling trade, it’s also outside traffickers coming into Nepal to use it as a transit point.
Kunda: Two Chinese people who were caught here, were caught while travelling from... they were carrying Cameroonian pangolins via Nigeria to Istanbul, and then to Kathmandu, and then they were taking it on to China. So it's not just a national network within Nepal, but also an international network across three continents. It's just amazing.
Marcy: The two Chinese which Kunda mentioned had flown into Kathmandu from Africa in 2018, when they were intercepted at the airport with 162 kilogrammes of pangolin scales. This was the largest seizure ever of pangolin scales in Nepal, and the first haul of an African species there.
But with transportation infrastructure being developed across the Himalayas, wildlife trafficking through Nepal is expected to increase.
Kunda: China is building these highways and even a railway – the Tibet railway is now coming. By next year, [it] will be at the Nepal border on the north side. And then there are more and more flights directly from Kathmandu to Chinese cities. So this means with greater connectivity and large-scale Chinese tourism in Nepal, as we've seen elsewhere, whenever you have this influx, always smuggling goes up because people see opportunities there.
Marcy: OK, so the risk of Nepal being used as a transit country for pangolin trafficking could be on the rise. But what about the pangolins that are hunted and poached in their native Nepal habitat?
Kunda: In Nepal, what we found out when we interviewed farmers is that they don't really go and hunt for pangolins. But lately, some of them have started actively hunting for pangolins because they know that they can make a lot of money with it. People are desperate, they need the money, and the recruiters and the middlemen are very active in rural areas. So the temptation is very high.
Bonnie: When I spoke to Kunda’s colleague Sonia Awale, a digital producer for the Nepali Times, she described the stories of two smugglers convicted for carrying pangolin scales. She interviewed them in Nepal’s central jail in Kathmandu. Both of them were from poor, rural areas outside the capital.
Sonia Awale: One of them knew that it was illegal to carry pangolin scales, but did not know that he was getting it, because he was with some of his friends, and one of his friends had some pangolin scales in his bag. All of them got arrested, because even if you're just in the same ride with a person who actually has pangolins, you still get arrested. So he got arrested. He was, I think, only 17 when he got arrested – still a high school student. And when I met him, he told me that he's been [sentenced to] five years’ jail time, and he was hoping to appeal for bail. From his perspective, definitely it looked like a case where he knew nothing, he was totally innocent. And the friend who actually had pangolin scales somehow managed to free himself.
Bonnie: Sonia mentioned two smuggling cases, so I asked her to describe the other one.
Sonia: It was a case where a friend, a neighbour of his, came to him and said: “I have some pangolin scales, and if we could manage to sell it, we will probably divide the sum between us.” And he went along with that. They took a motorbike and then they came to Kathmandu. And basically he told me he did not know that the punishment was going to be so severe, and he was just trying to make a living, is what he was saying. So [neither] of them were actually hardened criminals.
Bonnie: In Nepal, anyone responsible for killing, poaching, transporting, selling or buying the pangolin is punishable with a US$14,000 fine or up to 15 years in jail. Of course, for many Nepalese, paying the fine is impossible, so jail is the only option.
Marcy: So it sounds like the Nepalese government is trying to step up their enforcement. But, some people, often in poorer, rural areas, aren’t aware of the stiff penalties.
Bonnie: Yes, a lot of these arrests seem to sacrifice the lower level of the smuggling chain, but much of the higher criminal network remains unaffected and at large.
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Marcy: So we discovered earlier that it’s not just the pangolins that are being caught in this web of criminal trafficking. But is it worth it for the people at the bottom, like the poachers and the small-scale smugglers? I mean how much do they really earn?
Bonnie: To find out, we look at Indonesia, another source country that has native pangolins. Unlike Nepal, which is an interlocked country between India and China, Indonesia is an archipelago country with over 12,000 islands. I put that question to Wahyu Dhyatmika, editor-in-chief of Tempo Magazine in Indonesia, who is also involved in the Pangolin Reports.
Wahyu Dhyatmika: The poachers maybe only get 5- 10% of the end price of these scales. So they actually don't have any idea how valuable what they're doing is. We try not to emphasise this, because we are afraid that this will encourage people to do more poaching.
Bonnie: Wahyu also said that what is really driving this illegal trading business is how lucrative it is for people further up the chain. According to the Pangolin Reports, prices for pangolin scales can easily increase 30-fold along the supply network. I asked Wahyu how much do these poachers get paid for pangolin meat?
Wahyu: So, these poachers [in] the field, they usually only get paid [something] like US$20.
Bonnie: OK, so US$20 for a kilogramme of pangolin meat. What happens after that?
Wahyu: The poachers usually send their captured pangolin to a collector. So, a couple of collectors. Then, [when] they have enough scales, they will send it every four or six months to a bigger trader in the city. Maybe it's in Pontianak or maybe it's in Semarang in Central Java. So they are the ones who are really connected to the smuggling network. The poachers and the collectors have no idea of these networks.
So, the network then, if they have orders from abroad, [they] will contact all of these city-based collectors – the ones that collect [from] all of the villages, the captured pangolins. And they are the ones who then arrange for the shipment and get the biggest cut of the trade.
Bonnie: And as we said earlier, Indonesia is an archipelago country, so it has many seafood trading ports, and that makes it easy for these collectors to conceal the pangolin scales on a ship with frozen fish, squid and oysters that are being exported up north.
Wahyu: Indonesia is one of the main source countries for pangolin scales, meat and also live ones, [which are] sent to China mostly, but also to other parts of Asia like Vietnam and Malaysia.
Bonnie: Wahyu also said that as palm oil plantations have expanded in Indonesia, forest habitat for pangolins is shrinking. The pangolins then move into new areas outside the forest, and are exposed to poachers. So I asked him: “Can’t the police catch the poachers?”
Wahyu: The problem on the ground [is] mostly lack of resources [for] the police, because they have other pressing criminal issues to deal with. So without strong public advocacy, without strong international pressure, the police will not put this pangolin smuggling issue high on the list, because of the other issues on their agenda.
Marcy: So, Indonesia struggles with some of the same issues as Myanmar and Nepal – they lack the necessary resources for law enforcement to combat this wildlife trafficking.
Bonnie: And if you set the price for pangolins high enough, there will be a strong temptation for locals to take part in the smuggling. And often, it is the small-scale local poachers and traders – the poorer people at the bottom of the smuggling pyramid – that get caught and go to jail.
Marcy: Just one pangolin worth of scales can already provide a “life-changing sum of money” for people living in some of these countries’ poorest communities. The pangolins’ defence mechanism against predators, where it rolls itself into a scaly ball, unfortunately makes it easy prey for human hunters.
Bonnie: Kunda Dixit from the Nepali Times sums it up:
Kunda: You know, it has worked with other wildlife smuggling efforts – I think the [easiest] way is to address the pull factor from China. You have to go to the market and reduce the demand for it. And unless awareness in China grows, this is not going to happen.
Bonnie: So the best way to stop the trafficking of pangolins is to put an end to the demand.
Marcy: In the next episode, we will go undercover with journalists from Vietnam and Malaysia who also participated in the Pangolin Reports, and investigate how they handle the illegal pangolin trade in their countries.
Season seven of the Sustainable Asia podcast, the Pangolin Reports, was made in collaboration with China Dialogue and the Pangolin Reports. The season was hosted by me, Marcy Trent Long, produced by Bonnie Au with assistant producer Amber Hou. Sound engineering was by Chris Wood. A big thank you to our voice-over [artist] Jack Lau and the whole Sustainable Asia team: Josie Chan, Crystal Wu, Yufei Wu, Sam Colombie and Jill Baxter. Alexander Mauboussin created the intro/outro music, made from repurposed and recovered waste items. You can find his work at www.kalelover.net.
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