Written by: Oscar Nkala
Despite the arrests and long-term sentences given to several Zimbabwean pangolin capturers, dealers and traffickers over the past year; conservationists believe the increased seizure of live pangolins, pangolin scales, skins and other products indicate an upsurge in poaching of the world’s most widely trafficked animal.
According to quarterly crime incidence statistics for the period of January to April 2016 released by the Tikki Hywood Trust in May, pangolin poaching crimes are still rampant in Zimbabwe. “This year alone, Zimbabwe has handled 20 criminal cases involving pangolin poachers and 41 accused persons countrywide. Of those, 16 have already received the mandatory 9-year sentence and 4 have been acquitted,” the trust said.
An analysis of recent arrest trends and court cases shows that most of the poaching cases recorded in the period 2015-2016 originated around game reserves in the provinces of Mashonaland and Matabeleland. However the capital, Harare, remains the pangolin trade capital where live pangolin and product buyers, as well as trafficking kingpins with external links to the South-East Asian and Middle Eastern markets, allegedly operate from.
In Zimbabwe, one only needs to read the newspapers to see that despite the laudable law enforcement successes of the past year, there remains a crisis when it comes to the illegal capture, trade and trafficking in pangolin products.
While noting the high prevalence of pangolin poaching, the Tikki Hywood Trust has praised the efforts of the law enforcement agencies and the long duration jail sentences handed down by the judiciary as active deterrents to this scourge. According to prosecution analysis figures released by the trust on April 22 this year, 84 people were arrested for crimes linked to illegal dealing in live pangolins and pangolin products in 2015.
In a statement circulated on World Pangolin Day in February, the Tikki Hywood Trust expressed concern that despite tough laws against illegal exploitation, Zimbabwe’s pangolins are still being poached to satisfy the foreign market. “The pangolin is on the Zimbabwean list of specially protected endangered species. There is very strict legislation around the trafficking of any animal on the list and poachers can expect a minimum of 9 years in jail. The pangolin is of important cultural significance in Zimbabwe. The fact that they are being poached at such a high rate of late is frightening. What is most disturbing is that our natural heritage is being killed to satisfy a foreign market,” the trust said.
In its 2015 poaching crimes report, the Zimbabwe Parks and Wildlife Management Authority (PWMA) said it handled 22 cases of illegal possession of pangolins.
However, Zimbabwe Conservation Task Force (ZCTF) chairman Johnny Rodrigues told CAT that, while the arrest and long-term conviction of poachers is encouraging, the problem would continue if the crackdown excluded the Harare-based syndicates, which are seen as the drivers and enablers of the trade.
“The arrests and sentences are good, but should we take a close look at who is getting arrested and ask ourselves about the value of the targets we are incarcerating. From recent cases I have observed, its just the small boys – the runners and the couriers – who are getting jailed. The leaders and financiers of the syndicates roam free because the law is not building on information gathered from the runners to get to the syndicates and financiers of the trade. Several Chinese, and in one case, a Malian citizen, have been arrested while trying to smuggle ivory and live pangolins through the Harare International Airport in the past few years. While the crackdown on these low-level links of the trafficking chain is a positive development, it won’t help unless it goes after the syndicates which finance and which sustain the demand for the animals,” Rodrigues said.
The Tikki Hywood Trust and international wildlife conservation organisation TRAFFIC recently held a workshop to train aviation staff and security officers from the Harare International Airport on advanced cargo inspection techniques to detect and prevent the smuggling of live pangolins and pangolin products by air.
The fight to save the eight species of endangered pangolin received a boost in April when the United States announced plans to join Nigeria, Senegal, Vietnam, India and the Philippines in co-sponsoring a proposal asking the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) to upgrade the protection all species of pangolin to Appendix 1.
The proposal is set to be presented at the 17th edition of the CITES Convention of Parties (COP 17) meeting to be held in Johannesburg from September 24 to October 5 this year. All four African pangolin species – namely the black-bellied pangolin (Manis tetradactyla), white-bellied pangolin (Manis tricuspis), giant pangolin (Manis gigantea) and ground pangolin (Manis temminckii) will be covered by the proposal.