Massive pangolin seizure in Borneo smuggling operation bust

  • A team of police and wildlife officials in the Malaysian state of Sabah seized nearly 30 metric tons (33 tons) of pangolins on Feb. 7.
  • The raids on a factory in the state capital, Kota Kinabalu, and a warehouse in a village outside the city revealed a “smuggling syndicate,” which police believe has been operating for seven years.
  • Sabah has become a waypoint for the trafficking of scales from pangolins in Africa to Asia.
  • In this case, however, a man arrested in the raid told police that he had purchased the pangolins from local hunters in Malaysian Borneo.

Police and wildlife officials confiscated nearly 30 metric tons (33 tons) of pangolin carcasses, meat and scales, as well as dozens of the live animals, in Malaysian Borneo on Feb. 7, according to multiple media reports and the NGO TRAFFIC.

A tip alerted the authorities to what they say is evidence of a “smuggling syndicate” at a processing factory in the city of Kota Kinabalu, the capital of the Malaysian state of Sabah. They also raided a warehouse 35 kilometers (22 miles) from Kota Kinabalu in the village of Bontoi, police told The New Straits Times, an English-language newspaper published in Malaysia.

“Detecting large volumes of pangolin smuggling is no easy feat and Sabah authorities are congratulated for pursuing and taking down this smuggling operation,” Kanitha Krishnasamy, who directs TRAFFIC in Southeast Asia, said in a statement.

The Sunda pangolin (Manis javanica) is listed as critically endangered by the IUCN. Image by budak via Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0).

Sabah has in recent years become a waypoint for the transfer of pangolins and their scales from Africa to Asia, with more than 40 metric tons (44 tons) of the animals making their way through the state since mid-2017, TRAFFIC said. But according to The New Straits Times, a 35-year-old man arrested at the factory told police that local hunters had supplied him with the pangolins found at the factory. Sabah police commissioner Omar Mammah said that the man, a native of Sabah, managed the facility, which had been in operation for seven years.

The haul included 1,860 boxes of frozen meat, 361 kilograms (796 pounds) of scales and 61 live pangolins in cages. The Sabah Wildlife Department enforcement team and state police also found other materials for processing and shipping pangolin parts, including digital scales, cardboard boxes and plastic packaging.

The bust also turned up two legs from at least one sun bear (Helarctos malayanus), a species listed as vulnerable by the IUCN. Image by John C. Cannon/Mongabay.

The forests of equatorial Africa and Asia are home to eight species of pangolins, now known as the “most illegally traded wild mammals on the planet.” All eight are threatened with extinction, according to the IUCN. The group lists Malaysia’s only native species, the Sunda pangolin (Manis javanica), as critically endangered. It has been “totally protected” under state law since 2016, Augustine Tuuga, the director of the Sabah Wildlife Department, told the newspaper.

The news of the bust comes just days before World Pangolin Day on Feb. 16, aimed at highlighting the global slide in their numbers.

Police also seized two legs from one or more sun bears (Helarctos malayanus) — also an IUCN-listed vulnerable species native to Sabah — as well as the frozen carcasses of four fruit bats.

Tuuga said the department did not have up-to-date numbers on the pangolin population in the state, only that it was “low” around the Kinabatangan River in northeastern Sabah, where they’ve done the most recent research.

A Sunda pangolin. Image by budak via Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0).

Under the 1997 Sabah wildlife conservation law, anyone caught with totally protected species faces fines of between $12,500 and $60,000 and one to five years in prison, TRAFFIC said.

“It is hoped that comprehensive investigations can lead to unmasking the syndicate and networks operating from the state and beyond,” TRAFFIC’s Krishnasamy said.

Banner image of a Sunda pangolin (Manis javanica) by budak via Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0). 


Challender, D., Nguyen Van, T., Shepherd, C., Krishnasamy, K., Wang, A., Lee, B., Panjang, E., … & Chung, Y. 2014. Manis javanica. The IUCN Red List of Threatened Species 2014: e.T12763A45222303. Downloaded on 13 February 2019.

Scotson, L., Fredriksson, G., Augeri, D., Cheah, C., Ngoprasert, D. & Wai-Ming, W. 2017. Helarctos malayanus (errata version published in 2018). The IUCN Red List of Threatened Species 2017: e.T9760A123798233. Downloaded on 13 February 2019.

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