Vietnam is the world’s second largest destination for the illegal trade in pangolins after China. The Southeast Asian country is also a major transit hub for trafficking the endangered mammal into China. Yet, there is very little awareness of this issue within Vietnam, and despite numerous seizures of pangolins and pangolin parts, there are few prosecutions. In Malaysia too, loopholes in wildlife protection laws have allowed a thriving online marketplace in exotic pets to develop; it’s not hard to find someone who’ll sell you a pangolin for your Instagram feed. But there’s an even more serious issue facing the pangolins – habitat destruction. And it isn’t just a problem for pangolins. It’s a problem for all of us.
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More from this series:
Episode 1: Why are pangolins so prized in China?
Episode 2: Pangolins, poverty and porous borders
Trang Bui, the Pangolin Reports
Xu Jiaming, the Pangolin Reports
Elroi Yee, R.AGE Malaysia
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
Marcy Trent Long: In the past 20 years, it’s estimated that nearly 900,000 pangolins have been smuggled across Southeast Asia. With China having the greatest appetite for the mammal both as meat and for use in traditional medicine, illegal trafficking across Asia has flourished. In season seven, we follow an intriguing network of journalists who have worked together to stop this illicit trade in order to save the highly endangered pangolin.
Welcome to Sustainable Asia. I’m Marcy Trent Long. This is Season Seven: the Pangolin Reports.
In our first two episodes, Bonnie Au – a Hong Kong-based journalist – and I spoke with reporters for the Pangolin Reports from China, Myanmar, Nepal and Indonesia. Since we released these episodes, China has permanently banned wildlife trade for meat consumption in light of the coronavirus epidemic. Sadly, this ban doesn’t include consumption of pangolin scales for medicinal purposes, so it’s expected that China’s demand for pangolins will continue.
Bonnie Au: In this episode, we’ll look at the illicit pangolin trade in Vietnam and Malaysia. We’ll hear stories from local journalists about crime lords, online pangolin marketplaces and the loss of pangolin habitat to deforestation.
Marcy: And woven throughout all of these journeys, we’ll see a pattern of breaking wildlife protection laws.
Bonnie: OK, so let’s start with Vietnam.
Trang Bui: I'm Trang Bui and I am a member of the Pangolin Reports project. I have been working as a freelance journalist in Vietnam for over two years now, and before I worked at state media for one and a half years. My beat is environmental reporting, and the most recent projects that I’ve worked [on have been] on the pangolin trade.
Bonnie: Trang travelled in Vietnam with Jiaming Xu, the lead reporter from the Pangolin Reports featured in our first episode about Myanmar. Jiaming joined Trang in Hanoi to go undercover with her at a restaurant they had heard served pangolins. When they got there, they began haggling with the restaurant owner about arranging a special pangolin dinner.
Trang: You have to buy the whole pangolin.
Jiaming: Is that for how many people to eat?
Trang: He said 5kg, and it would be enough for 20.
Jiaming: Twenty? We’ll have 10 people at most.
Trang: They have private rooms… Eight million is for cooking and everything.
Bonnie: So that’s eight million Vietnamese dong per kilogramme of pangolin, which is about US$350. If it ends up being 5kg, a pangolin dinner for 20 people in a private room in Hanoi will cost about US$1,700. In chatting with the restaurant owner, Trang also found out that the pangolin might be from Myanmar, Laos or Vietnam – she wasn’t sure yet. And the restaurant owner also said that many Vietnamese government officials eat pangolins
Marcy: So is it common then for Vietnamese to also eat pangolins?
Bonnie: Well, let’s see what Trang tells us.
Trang: I would say that Vietnam is the only other country that believes in this magic of pangolin scales and bushmeat. So I think it's the second destination country in the world. Vietnam is quite special in the whole pangolin trade because it plays three roles: it's a source, a transit and also a destination country.
Marcy: So Vietnam is home to two pangolin species – that’s the “source”. And we just revealed that Vietnamese consume pangolins – that’s the “destination” part. But what about their role as a transit country sending pangolins into China?
Bonnie: According to a report released in February this year, about 70% of all pangolin scale seizures between 2016 and 2019 were through Vietnam and Nigeria. Pangolin scales along the route were either smuggled on their own or in combination with ivory. That report was from the Wildlife Justice Commission, a group just like the Pangolin Reports that works undercover to investigate wildlife trade. So that’s the transit part. And that transit role was new to Trang.
Trang: What really surprised me when I was doing this investigation is that Vietnam is playing such a huge role in the whole trade. Like before doing this investigation, the trade is just not that popular in everyday life. But in fact, Vietnam is the second [biggest] destination of [the] pangolin trade, and also [plays] a very huge role in transiting the wildlife trade.
But what's more surprising is that there's a lot of seizures in and out of Vietnam, but there's not a lot of reports on punishment or persecution of the culprit. So we rarely see a network kingpin being persecuted or being sent to jail.
So I think that the story we’re telling is that in Vietnam, there's not enough awareness and not enough punishment, I would say. And it should be told that Vietnam’s reputation is no less tainted than China’s when it comes to pangolin trafficking, because we are a country with the three roles, [which] not a lot of countries play.
Bonnie: So the Pangolin Reports investigation proved that pangolins are still available for consumption in Vietnam, and that “network kingpins”, as Trang called them, are not being brought to justice. This seems to be a similar story we keep sharing throughout Asia.
Marcy: So true. And Malaysia is no exception. When we talked to Elroi Yee, a lead reporter of the Pangolin Reports and Deputy executive producer at R.AGE Malaysia, he said:
Elroi Yee: We spent many, many months talking to a lot of different people, and everyone has their own story, and even smugglers, even corrupt policemen, they have their own stories.
Marcy: Then Elroi described a crazy meeting with one of the kingpins of the Malaysia pangolin trade.
Elroi: One of them showed up to meet us with his daughter, and it's hard to get that image out of your mind. Here is a very corrupt person who has made many millions out of smuggling pangolins across the borders [and has] had a hand in killing hundreds of thousands of pangolins, but he's there with his daughter and we're having supper with him. And you can't get that scene out of your head. It just doesn't work in your head, you know, the idea of a crime lord and a father.
Bonnie: Elroi told me he found a reason that explains why this pangolin trafficking crime lord is still at large.
Elroi: Wildlife protection laws in Malaysia are generally pretty good. But the problem is that it's just worded in a way that doesn't criminalise selling and promoting and marketing of wildlife, only possession. So that becomes sort of a loophole that traders exploit to make money.
Marcy: During Elroi’s research, he found out that, in Malaysia, wild animals like pangolins are not just facing danger from being smuggled for consumption, there’s [also] a growing interest amongst Malaysians to keep wildlife as pets. And because online wildlife traders don’t actually take possession of the animals – they just broker the trade – they are technically not breaking the law.
Bonnie: And many Malaysians that order the pets either don’t realise or don’t care that it’s illegal. In fact, punishments for pangolin possession can range from US$2,000 - 60,000, and include up to five years in prison.
Marcy: So R.AGE Malaysia – an online platform of video content created by the Star, Malaysia’s top English daily newspaper – produced a video on their website explaining how Malaysia's online wildlife marketplace works. We have reproduced the audio here, but you can also find the original video at: https://www.rage.com.my/pangolin/
Video audio: In Malaysia, illegal wildlife are being sold on social media as exotic pets. Business is booming.
“We looked at the situation first in 2014 in Malaysia…”
Marcy: Elizabeth John, senior communications officer at Traffic.
Video audio: “…and at that time, we were just looking at 14 Facebook groups. We found 68,000 active members in those groups, you know, people looking, buying, selling. But today the trade has spread, its grown bigger, there are hundreds and hundreds of groups out there, and not just on Facebook. Any electronic platform to buy and sell wildlife is being bought and sold on those.”
These traders mostly supply exotic pets. But we found that they can also supply animals threatened with extinction.
Marcy: Elroi Yee explains.
Video audio: “So these are messages exchanged with an online wildlife trader whom we approached to buy a pangolin from. Now, he says he usually does not offer pangolins for sale to customers, but once we approached him to buy a pangolin, he was basically able to offer us one within a week. And since then, whenever he has a pangolin, he would offer it to us.”
Marcy: During their investigation into this illegal wildlife trade, R.AGE worked with Malaysia’s wildlife department enforcement officers to set up the purchase of two pangolins in a sting operation. It turns out this online trader, called Kejora Pets, has been active for years. Elroi said he found out about them through environmentalists and conservationists who have been monitoring the trader’s activities through social media.
Elroi: So in Malaysia, predominantly the demand is for cute exotic animals that people can keep at home as pets, and then they take photos of it and show it on their Instagram.
To be honest, it wasn't difficult to find this account: Kejora Pets. He's been known to supply exotic pets to buyers in Malaysia, and he's been quite brazen about it. It doesn't seem like he operates with any sort of worry, or he's never afraid that he might be caught. Because I think he knows that the law in Malaysia cannot prosecute him for selling animals. They can only prosecute him for being in possession of protected animals.
Marcy: Elroi also interviewed Dr Xavier Jayakumar, the minister of water, land and natural resources in Malaysia.
Elroi: But why can’t people just put a stop to it?
Dr Xavier Jayakumar: How do you want us to stop the trade? I don’t think we have the power to do that. If I advertise something on the internet, but there is no further business sale, or there is no other things that have been done, it’s just an advertisement on the internet, so how do you stop that? So you have to catch a person at it. That is, if the goods are exchanging hands and money is being paid for that, then yes, the law will come into force to take action against the people who have done this.
Marcy: Elroi also wanted to know who is poaching the pangolins in Malaysia to support the internet trade…
Dr Jayakumar: These are really hard-core criminals, they know the terrain, they have done this before. And the wildlife in their country is no more because of what they have done. Now they are coming into our country in order to chase after our wildlife, because there’s a market, there’s a demand. People are willing to pay certain exorbitant prices for these animal parts. So they take the risk of coming in with the visit visas, and then they disappear in our forests for four to five months, they collect whatever they can, and then they try and leave.
Malaysia is known as a mega-diverse country in terms of biodiversity. There are 13 of them in the world, and Malaysia is one of them. And this is something that we must preserve. So we must pay attention to the wildlife in this country because it is part of us. This country has given us a lot, so much so that we should be able to play our part in order to preserve them as well.
Marcy: But the story doesn’t end there. Sadly, pangolins are not only threatened by illegal traders entering and operating in Malaysia, as described by Dr Jayakumar earlier, they are also being threatened by a loss of habitat. Here’s Elroi again.
Elroi: Our consumption habits threaten the forest through deforestation. Habitat loss is perhaps an even more pressing issue given that it doesn't just threaten the pangolins, it threatens other animals, other plants, and [also] the people who live in the forest and who depend on the forest for a livelihood.
Marcy: Elroi decided to go and visit this indigenous Temiar community in Peninsular Malaysia.
Elroi: So these are people who've been living in the forest, but who've been moved around the forest through no choice of their own. So there are loggers who come in who would take down parts of the forest, and they would have to move. Then the government would come in and say: “Look guys, it's not suitable for you to live here. Why don't you move here?” And then they will move. And at every step of the way, they just see the forest slowly degrading around them. It doesn't provide as much bounty as it used to, [it] doesn't provide as much food as it used to.
So these are people who have been cornered in a landscape that is so free and open, they’ve just been cornered into this tiny little space. And it's an experience that I don't think anybody can even articulate. Even people who are in that situation.
Marcy: And while Elroi was visiting the Temiar community, they found a pangolin curled up in a ball on the ground.
Elroi: And I think that moment, when they caught a pangolin and he was showing it to us, and he was telling us that there used to be a lot of these pangolins. A lot. Before everything happened, before the loggers came, there used to be a lot. But now it's hard to find one. And there was a short pause, and then he said: “Kind of like us.” They have nowhere to go as well. So that's the punch in the gut. So, you know, it's not just a story about losing pangolins, it's not just a story about losing wildlife. Human beings are involved. It's going to hit us as well some day, the same way it’s affecting these people.
You have to save the entire ecosystem. Every [bit] of it matters, because every time you lose one of them, a part disappears forever. And it changes the other parts, the other actors in this landscape. So we really need to think about protecting everybody equally.
Marcy: In the next episode, we’ll look at efforts in Asia to save pangolins in wildlife rescue centres – stories that will warm your heart.
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 by Chris Wood. Credits to R.AGE Malaysia for letting us feature their videos – check out their website at https://www.rage.com.my/pangolin/ - 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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Thank you and stay tuned for next week.
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