Saving the African Pangolin: The Case of Zimbabwe

Wednesday, November 16, 2016

Human threats to pangolins in Zimbabwe have been kept in check for hundreds of years by traditional practices, but the recent globalization of illicit trade in these scaly, anteater-like mammals has threatened to exterminate them. Held in high regard by traditional chiefs, village headmen, and the tribal communities in general, the pangolin has historically benefitted from human protection in Africa. Zimbabwean folklore advised that the hunting of the pangolin (haka) be strictly controlled, and the deliberate taming of the pangolin was a serious offense. Only in rare cases was the pangolin hunted by traditional healers or chiefs for medicinal or rainmaking purposes. However, the commodification of the pangolin as an alternative source of income has subsequently led to the disregard of the traditional regulations guiding its protection.

Consequently, the poaching and illegal trade of pangolins in Zimbabwe has significantly increased in the last three to four years: there were 84 convictions of crimes related to illegal possession of pangolins in the second quarter of 2015 alone. This increase can be attributed to expansion of the Chinese pangolin market, the dwindling number of Asian pangolins, and a zero quota trade ban for Asian pangolins established in 2000, which have resulted in traders turning their attention to Africa. This also follows Zimbabwe’s recent adoption of the “look east foreign policy,” which has opened opportunities for unregulated trade of wildlife products with China and other Asian countries where the pangolin is much sought after. Until recently, large-volume shipments of pangolin products from Zimbabwe to China were virtually unrecorded.

Chief Mlambo, a 74-year-old Traditional Leader from Chimanimani, lamented the unprecedented levels of pangolin poaching: “I am burdened by the fact that we are being motivated to destroy our natural heritage.”

White-bellied pangolin, National Botanic Garden of Belgium

Photo by the National Botanic Garden of Belgium

The infiltration of Chinese wildlife traders in Zimbabwe during the last four years has resulted in the exposure of the pangolin to poaching. Chinese traders have reportedly disregarded local wildlife trade regulations and have worked with local “runners” to perpetuate its exploitation. Given the poor economic state of the country, the expansion of the Chinese buying market for the Pangolin has also offered an alternative livelihood for locals. Pangolin-related crimes in Zimbabwe involve the sale of live animals, scales, and other products. Wildlife crime and corruption in Zimbabwe has largely been driven by political elites, business investors from China and Southeastern Asia, and associated independent hunters and syndicates.

Although Zimbabwe Parks and Wildlife authorities acknowledge the extant threats to the pangolin, the lack of rule of law in Zimbabwe, particularly when it comes to enforcement of laws governing the hunting and trade of endangered species, is concerning. Too often, the illicit trade of wildlife in Zimbabwe involves the political elite who are treated with impunity. Zimbabwe Conservation Taskforce Chairman Johnny Rodrigues highlighted in a statement that a successful clampdown on the illegal trafficking of pangolins should go beyond the arrest of runners and couriers to include the leaders and financiers of wildlife trafficking syndicates.

While Zimbabwe still needs to pursue strong and non-partisan enforcement of wildlife anti-trafficking laws to fight against illegal wildlife trade, the international community has brought forward one solution to protect all eight species of pangolin, some of which are critically endangered. At the October 2016 Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES), the United States joined India, Nigeria, the Philippines, Senegal, and Vietnam in co-sponsoring a proposal to upgrade the protection of all species of pangolin from Appendix II to Appendix I of CITES. This regulation prohibits their international commercial trade and empowers range states to increase domestic protection to fight the tremendous threats facing the species. Under Appendix II, the Pangolin was provided only a modest level of protection, requiring exporting countries to ensure that any traded pangolin specimen had been legally obtained.

As a signatory to the Greater Protections Needed for All Pangolin Species motion, ELI is proud to have been part of this historic achievement. This move is anticipated to mitigate the trade of these most endangered species.