Half a ton of pangolin scales seized on the way to Asia from Benin

  • More than 500 kilograms of pangolin scales were confiscated at the Cotonou airport in Benin on March 19.
  • Three people suspected of trying to smuggle 23 bags of scales, used in traditional medicine in Asia, were arrested on their way to Vietnam.
  • Research indicates that a hunter captures a pangolin in the wild once every five minutes, adding up to more than a million taken over the past 10 years.

Anti-trafficking authorities have seized 513 kilograms (1,131 pounds) of pangolin scales at Cotonou airport in the West African country of Benin, the Beninese newspaper La Nouvelle Tribune reports.

The paper reported that three people were arrested on March 19 on their way to Vietnam with 23 bags of scales, likely destined for use in traditional medicines. Hunters also go after these anteater-like animals for their meat. The eight species of pangolin are today the most trafficked mammals on the planet, according to the IUCN Pangolin Specialist Group.

Confiscated pangolin scales in Cameroon. Image by U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Headquarters via Wikimedia Commons (CC BY 2.0).

The Zoological Society of London (ZSL) has been working with the team responsible for the seizure to stop wildlife trafficking in their country. They had experience looking for drug traffickers, but the ZSL said its program gave the squad a new set of tools.

“Successes like this underscore the vital importance of the training and mentoring ZSL offers to in-country law enforcement teams, as part of our wider commitment to building conservation capacity in the regions where we operate,” Chris Ransom, who leads the ZSL’s conservation efforts in Africa, said in a statement. “The fact our local partners also appear to have uncovered a previously unrecognised smuggling route out of West Africa during this operation gives double cause for celebration.”

Four species of pangolin live in the forests, savannas and deserts of Africa, and the IUCN categorizes them all as vulnerable. Four others, listed as either endangered or critically endangered, are found in Asia.

Authorities in West Africa’s Ivory Coast have made several sizable seizures of pangolin scales in the past year, including one involving 3 metric tons (3.3 tons) of scales. Officials in Cameroon intercepted a shipment of 1,000 kilograms (2,200 pounds) of scales headed for China on April 6 in Douala. In both cases, ivory was also among the illicit hauls.

A ground pangolin (Smutsia temminckii) found in parts of Africa. Image by U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Headquarters via Wikimedia Commons (CC BY 2.0).

The ZSL said the March bust in Benin was likely the most significant confiscation of wildlife products ever by the country’s law enforcement officials. The suspects in the case went before a prosecutor on March 21 and were ordered released after they posted bail. They could face sentences of six months to five years in prison if convicted.

Trafficking of wildlife products in general “is a global problem,” said Dirck Byler of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which provides funding to the ZSL’s training program, in the statement. But pangolins in particular have become a favorite target of traffickers as demand has increased. Research in 2014 found that 1 kilogram (2.2 pounds) of scales could sell for about $600 in China — double what the same amount would have fetched in 2008.

The IUCN Pangolin Specialist Group figures that a hunter pulls a pangolin from the wild once every five minutes, adding up to more than a million taken over the past 10 years. The scales in the bust at the Cotonou airport probably came from 1,500 animals, the ZSL reports.

“While this success in Benin gives cause for optimism, the sheer size of this seizure also demonstrates the urgent need to continue working with authorities in Benin and across the world to combat the insidious threat illegal wildlife trade poses to species and habitats globally,” Ransom said.

A pangolin taken by a hunter for meat in Central African Republic. Image by John C. Cannon/Mongabay.

Banner image of a tree pangolin by Tim Wacher/ZSL.

John Cannon is a staff writer at Mongabay. Find him on Twitter: @johnccannon

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