In rural Rivercess county, central Liberia, sacks of pangolin scales can be procured from villages within minutes.
They are sorted by type: the larger, reddish armour of the black-bellied pangolin, and the flimsier, pearly variety of its white-bellied cousin.
Between single-storey houses surrounded by forest, handfuls of scales are laid out on empty rice sacks to dry. They are sold by the families of hunters to neighbours serving as aggregators for roving traders.
Jeremiah (alias), a 52-year-old pastor, supplements his income from the church by working as one such agent for a buyer based in Liberia’s northern border city of Ganta.
“The buyers first came in 2018,” he recalls, sitting on the porch of his home, with a well-thumbed bible on a rickety table at his side and a small stock of household products laid out for sale on the ground. “We didn’t know anything about it, but they said if I could get enough, they would buy them from me.”
The buyers were soon passing weekly to collect the scales, telling Jeremiah they would be taken to neighbouring Ivory Coast for onward sale. But he is unsure of the reasons behind the burgeoning demand for a product which, up until recently, had been considered by most Rivercess inhabitants to be devoid of function.
“I asked what they really do with the scales and they told me they send them to Europe and America,” he recounts. “They said people can modify them and put them on their houses in an African design.”
In reality, Jeremiah is one rung off the bottom of an extensive pangolin supply ladder involving transnational criminal groups that culminates in Asia. Stretching across West and Central Africa, supply routes converge mainly in Nigeria and Cameroon, where the scales leave the continent destined for key markets such as China, Vietnam and Lao PDR.
Despite being banned in 2016 by the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES), the international commercial trade in pangolins is increasing. West and Central Africa have become key source areas for pangolin scales as populations of related species in Asia, where they are used in traditional medicine, have plummeted. Estimates place the number of pangolins removed from this part of Africa since 2009 at over 8.5 million.
Along with the black- and white-bellied species, Liberia is also home to the giant pangolin, which is rarely spotted in the country today. The International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) has classified the back-bellied pangolin as vulnerable; the other two are endangered.
Jeremiah receives credit from his buyer to make his purchases. He sells the white scales for 2,000 Liberian dollars (US$11.50) per kilo, while the red ones fetch 3,000 ($17.50). His mark-up is substantial: he pays the hunters who supply him a tenth of this amount.
“That’s how I managed to build this house,” he shrugs, gesturing to the bare plastered walls and corrugated iron roof. And despite facing competition from other agents in the village, he’s not short on supply.
In a neighbouring town, Samuel’s (alias) house is roofed with local thatch and the mud walls are cracked and crumbling. Living with his wife, their six children and his mother in three cramped rooms, their home appears to be bursting at the seams.
Sitting side by side on a bench outside a small shop selling liquor, Samuel’s friends proudly declare that he is the town’s most proficient hunter. Perched on the end as they pass around and refill a small glass with clear liquid, the 37-year-old is quiet and unassuming.
With a gun slung over one shoulder and a makeshift bag looped across his body, he walks deep into the forest for days at a time to hunt and lay snares, operating mainly at night. From monkey to crocodile, no species is off limits, with most destined for cooking pots in the local area.
“The red deer [bushbuck] brings the most money,” he says softly. “Sometimes when I kill one I get 10,000 dollars [US$58]. Then my children are set for their school fees.”
Samuel’s wiry build enables him to move swiftly and tread lightly. He walks carefully and hesitantly, observing animal tracks through the dense foliage, finely attuned to the forest’s movements and sounds. He has laid some 50 thin wire traps along an extensive network of animal pathways. Barely visible, they are looped according to the neck size and height of their intended captives.
He stoops to inspect a snare that has been released but with no animal in sight. “The antsbear got away,” he says. “They’re strong.”
Earning this nickname through their unvaried diet of ants and termites, pangolins raise little revenue for hunters. But they are highly sought-after nonetheless due to an insatiable local appetite for their meat.
“I might catch two or three antsbear in a month,” says Samuel. “I catch them to eat because the meat is sweet. I don’t sell it.”
The high local demand for pangolin meat means buyers of their scales – which were previously considered a worthless byproduct by hunters and consumers – have a reliable ongoing supply.
“Pangolins have always been important as a bushmeat resource in Africa, meaning scales are easy to come by,” says Matthew Shirley, a conservation scientist and member of the IUCN’s pangolin specialist group.
Conversely, Shirley continues, this is likely to be a key reason why the region does not supply large quantities of pangolin meat to Asia, despite a high demand there as well: “There is huge competition with the African market. There has not been a major interception of pangolin carcasses or meat in West Africa.”
Nonetheless, consumers in Rivercess have proven willing to change their cooking practices to accommodate the new trade in scales in exchange for the little money they receive.
“We used to burn [roast] it on the fire, but since people came to buy the shell [scales], we started boiling it in hot water,” explains Samuel. “When the water boils you put the antsbear inside and when it dies you can remove the shell easily.
“I keep it and sometimes we can sell it for 200 dollars [US$1.20] for the kilo,” he continues. An average-sized black- or white-bellied pangolin equates to 200-300g of scales. “I use the small money to buy my salt and Vita [stock cubes].”
But in the past year, the trade appears to have been put on hold. The buyers stopped coming after the spread of the coronavirus prompted travel bans across West Africa from March 2020.
“Due to the pandemic we have not seen them,” says Jeremiah. “We are in communication, but they say things are hard because of the sickness and they are not able to travel.”
Similarly, the number of live pangolins intercepted by the authorities and received by the Libassa Wildlife Sanctuary near Liberia’s capital – the only sanctuary in the sub-region that accepts any confiscated animal – dipped to four in 2020, down from a yearly average of 10.
While Liberia’s lockdown has long since been lifted and goods can easily cross the porous borders with neighbouring countries, the buyers have still not returned to Jeremiah’s district.
There is little public information on the extent of Liberia’s involvement in the transnational pangolin scale trade. The most recent confiscation occurred in March 2020, when 400kg of scales were seized from a taxi at a checkpoint on the road to Ganta and the Guinean border.
However, research by the Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA), a UK-based NGO, suggests the continuing dormancy of the trade in Rivercess is inconsistent with broader regional trends.
In a report published in December 2020 that traces the routes of pangolin scales from source countries to the region’s main export point in Nigeria, the EIA states that sourcing routes “have continued to be used during the pandemic, albeit with some disruptions.
“These routes continue to be used to source large volumes of ivory and pangolin scales, most likely to stockpile the goods in anticipation of increased buyer-interest when the pandemic subsides,” the report continues.
“While traffickers have inevitably found it more difficult to export goods from Africa to Asia via air, sea routes have remained active with containers of pangolin scales and ivory leaving Nigeria… to destinations in South-East Asia.”
Liberian law enforcement is unlikely to be a contributing factor in the halt to Jeremiah’s trade. There have only been two seizures of scales in recent years, according to statistics supplied to China Dialogue by the Forestry Development Authority (FDA), which is responsible for the sustainable management of Liberia’s forest resources.
This is in spite of a new law passed in November 2016 that made it illegal to catch, kill, eat, keep, sell or transport protected wildlife, including all three pangolin species. According to the law, killing a protected animal can incur a fine of up to US$5,000 or a six-month prison sentence.
The wildlife law also stipulates that hunters must obtain a permit or licence in order to operate, with a penalty of up to US$500 or a year in prison for those who fail to comply. But there is no licensing system in place, and subsistence hunting is officially tolerated providing it does not occur in a designated protected area or involve protected species.
According to a statement from the FDA, a regulation to introduce a licensing system “is being written and will be finalised soon”.
Samuel has never held a licence in almost 25 years of hunting. And he claims to be unaware of the illegality of hunting antsbears and other protected species, such as Campbell’s monkeys and zebra duikers, the carcases of which can be seen smoking gently over wood fires outside his neighbours’ homes.
“No hunters have a licence here,” he says. “We’re living in the village. If the government doesn’t come to license us we will never get it.”
Another hunter who, unlike Samuel, takes dried meat to sell in the nearest city when he has a surplus, describes his encounters with law enforcers at checkpoints.
“If you’re travelling with certain meat they can say you’re not supposed to kill it,” he says. “They will arrest the meat but they will not arrest you.
“We can talk to them, say we killed it to earn a living because we don’t have work to do,” he continues. “And they will say give us some and they’ll give the rest back. Once you’ve gone they will eat it or give it to their girlfriends.”
Jeremiah also professes ignorance of the illegality of the pangolin scale trade. “Nobody has told me that it’s a protected species,” he says. “It could be so, but this country is a country of law and if the government said so, they would have come to give us that information. But nobody has come here.”
A written statement to China Dialogue from the FDA’s Department of Forest Conservation identified the main challenges to curbing wildlife trafficking in Liberia as: “interference in law enforcement and prosecution by politicians, influential people in society and local authorities; inadequate or absence of staff at checkpoints and borders to control [the] illegal wildlife trade; inadequate funding; porous borders; [and] absence [of] or inadequate alternative livelihoods for forest dependent communities”.
Aside from hunting, Samuel works alongside his wife on their farm, growing cassava, plantain, peppers and pineapples. When times get especially tough, he goes to the nearby small-scale gold mine and spends long days in a pit digging and shovelling earth. There are few other options.
“I don’t like the hunting business,” he confides. “I suffer to go in the bush, find something small and bring it home for my children to live. If I could get any other job I would leave the hunting.”
Samuel regrets leaving school aged 13 to follow in his father’s footsteps. “My eldest child is 12,” he reflects. “I’d say ‘no’ if my son told me he wanted to be a hunter. I’d tell him to learn and get a better job and then he will get something good tomorrow. Because I didn’t learn anything, that’s why I’m hunting.”
Meanwhile, the supply of antsbear scales in Rivercess shows no sign of drying up as the appetite for sweet meat remains high. And the villagers sit on their growing sacks of keratin, waiting for the buyers to return.
Names have been changed to protect identities.