24 Apr 2023

Fauna / Central Africa’s guardians of the forest slaughtered for myths and meat

Renewed efforts are needed to protect pangolins from being poached in Central Africa.

Pangolins are the most trafficked mammals in the world, and Central Africa is emerging as a hotspot for pangolin poaching and trafficking. All four species of pangolin found on the continent inhabit the forests of Central Africa and are all classified as either endangered or vulnerable on the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s Red List.

Organised international criminal networks that had previously traded mostly with African elephant ivory are increasingly turning to pangolins. Huge numbers are being trafficked from Africa to Asia. This is despite a 2017 international trade ban on all eight pangolin species, and domestic legislation in Central African countries that aims to protect and manage endangered wildlife.

The transnational demand for this animal’s products drives the continuous poaching of, and illicit trade in, pangolins from Central Africa. Its meat is considered a delicacy in Asia, while the belief that pangolin scales have magical and curative properties means they are in high demand for traditional medicine in Africa and Asia. Border porosity, weak law enforcement and corruption on the supply side enable this growing crime in Central Africa.

In 2021, two foreign nationals were arrested for trafficking wildlife products in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC). Operation Kuluna, a joint operation between the United States (US) Office of Homeland Security Investigations, the DRC government and the US Embassy in Kinshasa, seized 938 kg of ivory and 34 kg of pangolin scales in Kinshasa worth around US$3.5 million. The indictment alleges that the defendants paid bribes to authorities in Kinshasa to ship the commodities. It also reveals how the traffickers intended to conceal larger shipments in timber or corn to avoid detection.

Efforts to protect and conserve this important mammal in Central Africa must be intensified

A senior forestry official from the Republic of the Congo told ENACT that the most poached species in the country were elephant and pangolin. According to the forestry directorate, 20 tonnes of pangolin scales were seized in 2018 and nine tonnes in 2020 (the 2019 records are not available). These seizures were made at the port city of Pointe-Noire, a known transit hub for wildlife trafficking. Officials noted that these pangolins and their scales had been smuggled from the port of Matadi in the DRC. Over the years, arrested traffickers have included Congolese, Malian, Lebanese and Chinese nationals.

In Cameroon, wildlife crimes have increased in intensity and sophistication since the early 2000s and now include international illicit trade dimensions. This is according to an interview with the Last Great Ape Organisation (LAGA) – a non-governmental organisation that advocates for wildlife law enforcement in Cameroon. LAGA’s deputy director Tah Eric Kaba says pangolins are rapidly becoming extinct there.

At the source, local people form poaching cells to catch the pangolins in their natural habitats. Criminal syndicates and buyers from cities such as Yaoundé and Douala buy the animals and their products from these poaching cells.

The city-based syndicates, which include Cameroonians and Nigerians, export the pangolins to Asia through major transit nodes such as Douala (Cameroon) and Lagos ports (Nigeria). Cameroon has also emerged as a major transit country for pangolins trafficked from the Central African Republic, says LAGA. Traffickers bribe border and customs officials to secure ease of passage for illegal wildlife products and also provide false custom declarations for their shipments.

The various forestry and wildlife departments should also seek funding and training support

The major destination markets for illicit wildlife products are well-reported and include China, Thailand, Malaysia and Vietnam. There is also a route north of Cameroon, through Chad and Sudan, through which pangolins and other endangered animals are trafficked to markets in Arab countries.

Pangolins, known as the guardians of the forest, are important for local ecosystems because they protect forests from termite destruction and create breeding habitats and shelter for many other animals through their burrowing.

Despite this, says Kaba, state actors generally perceive wildlife crime as a low-level concern. Hence the government’s response has remained inadequate compared to other transnational crimes, such as financial crime in the public sector.

Prioritising efforts to protect and conserve this important mammal in Central Africa is imperative. Officials in Cameroon, Gabon and the Republic of the Congo told ENACT that four critical areas must be prioritised for immediate solutions. These are public awareness, increased funding to aid wildlife crime investigations, increased collaboration among countries’ law enforcement authorities and capacity building.

Civil society organisations working in environmental conservation and protection in the region provide a critical check through their advocacy and campaign efforts with various stakeholders, especially those in government, to ensure policymakers prioritise wildlife crime.

The belief that pangolin scales have magical and curative properties means they’re in high demand in Africa and Asia

These environmental advocacy groups are dedicated to continually innovating ways to promote awareness on the plight of pangolins in Central Africa. A recent documentary showing pangolins as the most trafficked mammal provides a good practice example of how to reach a wider audience, especially because it is viewable on mobile devices.

Together with this, improving funding for wildlife crime investigation, collaboration and capacity building remains central to finding solutions to preventing and disrupting wildlife crime. Despite fiscal constraints, Central African governments' budgetary allocations to their law enforcement agencies, including customs, forest guards and prosecution services need to reflect their commitment to halting this illicit trade. Such funding may then improve their analytical capacity to develop wildlife crime prevention strategies and advance collaborative local, national and cross-border actions to stem the tide of pangolin trafficking.

Added to this the various forestry and wildlife departments should also seek funding and training support from international development partners to design and implement anti-wildlife trafficking policies.

Here a good example is Malawi, where the US Department of State’s Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs worked with local authorities to improve the capacity of investigators. This helped dismantle some of the continent’s largest wildlife trafficking networks. The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime has also collaborated with national authorities across Central Africa to develop a series of tailor-made Rapid Reference Guides for investigators and prosecutors of wildlife and forest crime.

This multi-pronged set of initiatives may also expand international commitment and cooperation to promoting and building national resilience to wildlife trafficking in affected countries, as well as debunking the myths surrounding the creatures’ medicinal properties so as to decrease the demand for these important mammals in Africa.

Oluwole Ojewale, Regional Organised Crime Observatory Coordinator – Central Africa


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