Much of the planet is confined to a standstill. The mafia business is doing well. In Port Kelang, Malaysia, customs officials seized more than six tonnes of pangolin scales, hidden under cashew nuts, on March 31, for a value of more than 16 million euros (more than € 2,600). kg). “The final destination could only be China, a large consumer of scales for traditional medicine”, says Charlotte Nithart, campaign manager for the NGO Robin Hood who tracks smuggling on the global planet.
“But where are the criminals? Arrests are very rare, organized crime, with one foot in Asia and one foot in Africa, continues to flourish ”, is outraged Ofir Drori, founder in Cameroon of the Eagle network to fight corruption and trafficking in protected species in nine African countries. Eagle still managed to help arrest 171 traffickers in ten African countries last year. In Cameroon alone, around fifteen were arrested and 1.8 tonnes of pangolin scales seized. One of them traded in spices and hid the scales in the bags of pepper. Another, in telephony, went regularly to China.
The eight endangered species
China may announce the ban on the consumption of wild animals – including the pangolin, suspected of being the intermediate host of the virus between the bat and humans – but it has not renounced a single blow to the small mammal and its keratin scales. “The ban only concerns food”, says Charlotte Nithart.
As the Chinese pangolin was endangered in the 1980s and 1990s, China then turned to the other countries of Asia, then finally to Africa. Since then, three of the four Asian species of pangolins have been classified in “Critical danger of extinction” and the fourth, still chased, “In danger of extinction”, on the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List. The four African species suffer the same fate: two are now “In danger of extinction” And two “Vulnerable”.
900,000 pangolins trafficked in ten years
According to the NGO Traffic, smuggling has affected some 900,000 pangolins in ten years. International trade in the eight pangolin species, considered the most trafficked animal in the world, was banned in 2016 by the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Flora and Fauna (Cites).
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“In 2005, Chinese people carrying bags of scales were arrested in Yaoundé, Cameroon. It was the start of illegal trade in Africa. In a few years, the traffic has gotten carried away, the bags of scales have become containers of several tons even more profitable than ivory “, explains Ofir Drori.
Tons of bushmeat arrive in Europe
In many countries in sub-Saharan Africa, bushmeat is almost the only source of protein for rural populations. It is a food habit that can also be found in the luggage of African diasporas traveling to Europe.
→ ANALYSIS. China’s difficult closure of wild animal markets
A study by the Zoological Society of London carried out in 2010 estimated that 270 tonnes of bushmeat, fresh, smoked or frozen, passed through Roissy airport each year, and then warned of the “Huge potential risk to public health“. The Chinese, fond of fresh meat, only import the scales from Africa, which does not however prevent kilos of meat also hiding in suitcases.
Pangolins sold flaked
Covid-19 obliges, Gabon published on March 31 a decree prohibiting the capture, the marketing and the consumption of pangolins and bats. “What will be its scope? “, questions Luc Mathot, director of the NGO Conservation Justice in Gabon. “Before, the villagers threw the scales and ate the meat or sold the whole pangolins, he continues. Today, they often sell chipped pangolins and reserve the scales for the Chinese or their intermediaries. ” But this is only the small fry.
In countries where the bulk of the traffic is concentrated, such as Cameroon or Nigeria, pangolins are massively killed for their scales. “This is organized crime. Whoever picks up pangolins in the forest works for a mayor, a prefect, a gendarme or a religious authority, who are members of the organized criminal syndicate. With his income, he not only earns what to eat but he buys his protection, which is often even more precious ”, explains Ofir Drori. Corruption at all levels, even in courtrooms and prisons, prevents these increasingly powerful networks from being overcome.