By Eric Kaba Tah, Deputy Director and Head of External Relations of LAGA
The pangolin, one of the most unique and fascinating animals on the planet, is facing a grave threat in the form of illegal trade in its meat and scales. This trade is driving the species to the brink of extinction, even though it is protected by law. The scales invariably end up in trafficking networks where they are stockpiled in huge quantities and exported, mainly to countries including China and Vietnam. The meat on the other hand ends up in huge urban centers where it is illegally sold and eaten in households.
According to the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES), the primary threat to most pangolin species is illegal hunting and poaching. The illegal trade also allows corruption to flourish, enabling specialised networks to move contraband in bulk.
Illegal trade in pangolin scales has led to trafficking networks that transport them through ports in cities like Douala and Limbe. Recent seizures in these towns have shown that the scales are being shipped off to Nigeria and various parts of Asia. In one case, a Chinese national was caught attempting to smuggle 80kg of pangolin scales out of Limbe in April 2013 via boats to Nigeria. The illegal trade in pangolin scales is fueling the extinction of this unique species, and urgent action is needed to stop this illegal trade.
Officials depend largely on the working partnership with groups like The Last Great Ape Organisation ( LAGA) to fight the illegal trade in pangolin scales. LAGA is an NGO that works with government agencies to combat wildlife crime in Cameroon, with a particular focus on illegal trade in endangered species like pangolins. LAGA conducts investigations, provides technical and legal support to law enforcement, and promotes public awareness to reduce demand for wildlife products. They work closely with officials to arrest and prosecute wildlife traffickers, and have successfully facilitated the seizure of large quantities of illegal wildlife products.
These efforts have produced a sizable number of operations with 94 traffickers arrested since 2017, and over 11 tons of pangolin scales seized. In January 2017, over 5 tons of pangolin scales were seized from two Chinese traffickers. The scales were already packaged in a container and ready for export to China.
The Ministry of Forestry and Wildlife is working together with LAGA to carry out operations that help protect pangolins. This is a priority for the government, and they are partnering with NGOs to ensure that pangolin conservation efforts are successful. Together, they are taking action to combat illegal wildlife trade and protect endangered pangolin populations.
When wildlife traffickers are caught, they often face consequences through the legal system. The law protects pangolins and other wild animals in Cameroon, and possessing any part of a protected species is considered the same as capturing or killing it. This means that traffickers can face imprisonment of 1 to 3 years and a fine of 3 to 10 million FCFA. If they are caught, the traffickers will be taken to a state counsel who decides whether there is enough evidence to proceed with a court trial. If the case goes to court, a judge will ultimately decide whether the trafficker should go to prison or not. Recent court decisions have helped to deter pangolin scale traffickers and support efforts to protect these animals.
In 2022, a trafficker caught in Bertoua with 246 kg of pangolin scales was sentenced to 19 months in prison. Similarly, another trafficker caught in Yaounde with 392 kg of pangolin scales was sentenced to 13 months in prison. These prison sentences serve as a deterrent to others, and give hope that if we continue to fight against pangolin trafficking, the species may survive in the long run. However, there is still much work to be done to protect these scaly anteaters.