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An examination of seizures of pangolins and resulting prosecutions in Zimbabwe by researchers from TRAFFIC, the Tikki Hywood Foundation and the School of Biological Sciences and Environment Institute, University of Adelaide, have found that the tough stance taken by the government in Zimbabwe sets a good example to other countries on how to protect pangolins from international trafficking.

In Asia, pangolins are increasingly threatened by high demand for their scales, which are used in traditional medicines, and for their meat, which is consumed as a luxury food. As a result, populations of Asian pangolins are in decline and supply is shifting to the four pangolin species found in Africa, where local cultural use may already pose some level of threat.

Ground Pangolin at Madikwe Game Reserve in South Africa.© David Brossard / Creative Commons Licence CC BY-SA 2.0
Ground pangolin at Madikwe Game Reserve in South Africa ©David Brossard

Temminck’s ground pangolin (Smutsia temminckii) is the only pangolin species native to Zimbabwe. Very little is known of its status in the wild, although populations are thought to be in decline. In 1975 it was placed on Zimbabwe’s Specially Protected Species list, which affords the species full protection.

According to the latest study, from 2010 to 2015 a total of 65 pangolin-related seizures (surrendered and confiscated) were reported in Zimbabwe, with the annual number of confiscations increasing significantly over this period.

However, in response, the Zimbabwean authorities have toughened their stance and imposed stiffer sentences on those convicted of pangolin crime. From January to June 2015, three quarters of confiscations in pangolin cases resulted in a jail sentence of nine years for at least one of the offenders involved.

According to Zimbabwean law, any person convicted of the unlawful killing, possession of, or trading in any Specially Protected Species is liable, on first conviction, to imprisonment for a period of not less than nine years, and for a second or subsequent conviction to imprisonment for a period of not less than eleven years.

The tough penalties appear to have deterred international traffickers. In the first six months of 2015, approximately eight tonnes of pangolin skins and scales were seized en route from Congo, Kenya, Nigeria and Uganda to Asia, with four of the six seizures reportedly of at least 500kg. None of the shipments involved Zimbabwe.

In contrast to Asia, where seizures of pangolins often measure in the tonnes, the greatest number of animals seized in Zimbabwe has been two animals.

“Strong enforcement is absolutely essential in the fight against illegal wildlife trade,” said Dr Chris R. Shepherd of TRAFFIC. “Weak enforcement undermines laws and does nothing for the conservation of highly threatened species like pangolins.”

The authors strongly recommend the approach taken in Zimbabwe is replicated in other African pangolin range countries to avert a trade crisis similar to that plaguing Asian pangolins, and to deter international trade further.

“The government of Zimbabwe through the judiciary have sent a very strong message to wildlife criminals. We now need countries in Africa and destination countries in Asia to follow suit if we have a hope of winning this war,” said Lisa Hywood of the Tikki Hywood Foundation.

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