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February 16, 2018

WORLD PANGOLIN DAY: Pangolin poaching in Africa and trafficking to Asia - A cross-border investigation

February 17 marks World Pangolin Day, a day to commemorate and bring awareness to the plight of the pangolin; the most trafficked animal in the world.

The pangolin is being hunted and killed in vast numbers in Africa, where its scales are trafficked to Asia via organised criminal networks. It's meat is considered a culinary delicacy in Asia and its scales are used in traditional Chinese medicine. In 2017 the Africa-China Reporting Project collaborated with HK01, a Hong Kong news agency, and Anu Nkeze Paul, an environmental journalist in Cameroon, to investigate both the African supply side and the Asian demand side of the illegal trade in pangolin products.

The result of these combined international investigations was to illustrate how pangolins are being hunted to extinction in Africa, and the pangolin scales are then transported from African villages to the cities from where Chinese middlemen ship them to Asia via an elaborate criminal smuggling network that passes through Hong Kong, Singapore, South Korea, and Mainland China.

HK01 produced five articles and two videos, outlining the findings of their investigations, the videos are embedded below with translated subtitles. The first video below illustrate the African pangolin scales market and the smuggling routes via HK to Asia; the second shows HK01's investigation on a restaurant selling wild meat including pangolins and a medicine shop selling pangolin scales in Guangdong in Mainland China.  The five articles include investigations on volunteers in Mainland China and HK fighting against pangolin smuggling; sales and low prosecutions to pangolin smuggling; pangolin smuggling routes; pangolin smuggling for Chinese restaurants and medicines; and the reporters notes on investigations.

Below this follows the investigative feature produced by Anu Nkeze Paul in Cameroon on pangolin poaching in four regions of that country and how the products are trafficked to the cities and out of the country.

WATCH: Pangolin smuggling route - from Africa to Asia

*English subtitles start at 00:26

WATCH: Pangolin smuggling for Chinese restaurants and medicines

*English subtitles start at 00:00


Pangolin poaching and trafficking in Cameroon: Challenges with implementing the law

By Anu Nkeze Paul in Yaoundé, Cameroon, originally published in Green Echoes (Cameroon) on 29 January 2018.

The government of Cameroon is legitimately concerned about the high incidence of pangolin poaching in the communities. But even though there are gaps in implementing stringent environmental rules or reluctance to enforce them, the important question for government is no longer when environmental concerns should influence the illicit trade of pangolins, but how. This feature highlights an investigation on the illegal poaching and trafficking of pangolins in Cameroon, outlining the challenges with implementing the law and presenting recommendations on how Cameroon can successfully achieve sustainable livelihood programmes through active engagement with communities and activities that may inhibit the illegal poaching of pangolins.

There are three types of pangolins: the giant, long tail and the tree climbing species. They feed on termites and ants, and produce offspring twice a year. Pangolins live inside dead palms and trees, and mostly move around at night to search for food.

This investigation looked into the illegal poaching and cross-border trafficking of pangolins in four regions of Cameroon: Southwest Region, Central Region, Eastern Region and South Region. If not controlled, the rapid and extraordinary poaching of pangolins in these regions of Cameroon could lead to the complete extermination and extinction of these endangered species.

This investigation was conducted over three months, July-September 2017. It’s important to highlight that pangolins scales are a culinary delicacy and in high demand in Asian markets. As a result, pangolin poaching in Cameroon has increased to alarming proportions, with an estimated 2.7 million pangolins poached in the forests of Cameroon annually; it is estimated that the number of pangolins poached is increasing by 150% every year.

Recent observations indicate that the supply of pangolins in the market has fallen sharply in recent years, yet apart from a dwindling pangolin population some suggestions for this decline in the market points to the possible use of alternative supply chain routes or channels by poachers. Nevertheless, the price of giant (Smutsia gigantea) and arboreal (Phataginus sp.) in urban markets has increased more than 2.3 times.


For this investigation I identified known poachers in all four regions, and set up special task teams consisting of poachers, community leaders, ordinary community members/informants and restaurant/business owners. I conducted Interviews with these key figures to assess the extent to which pangolin poaching is happening on the ground.

I also conducted local community workshops that provided an opportunity for the locals and poaching practitioners to talk together. I collected photographs of the mortal remains of poached pangolins as practical evidence.


Some practical findings on the ground reveal diverse facts across the four regions that harbor more than 90% of pangolins in Cameroon. These four regions is a place where trade routes and pangolin poaching and commercialisation in both local and foreign markets all intersect.

Southwest Region

In the Southwest Region the pangolin trade is dominated by Nigerians who bribe the eco-guards and cross the border to Nigeria before exporting to China, Hong Kong and other Asians markets. We captured videos of pangolin sales in local markets and restaurants.

Despite a ministerial order (No. 007/LC/MINFOF/DFAP/DVEF) of 11 January 2017 restricting poaching, commercialisation and exportation of pangolins, investigations in some villages of Makar, Esuikutan, Bakoko, Matamani, Meka and Besingi in Ndian Division in the Southwest Region revealed that the poor implementation of laws is making matters worse.

Some inhabitants of Korup National Park recently affirmed that poaching around the area is still a cause for concern. The pangolin trade is complicated because the meat is eaten locally while the scales are exported to Asian markets notably to Hong Kong, China and Malaysia.

A resident of Mayenmen town in Kupe Muangouba Division who spoke to the Green Echoes newspaper in an interview, revealed that most of the scales are transported to Nigeria before embarkation to Asian markets. He further revealed that most of those involved in the buying of the scales in this part of the country are Nigerians who bribe the eco-guards with as much as US$200.

Green Echoes investigations have discovered that the trade is benefiting mostly those who buy the scales and the corrupt guard officials at control points.

Of the three different well-known species of pangolin, giant, long tail and tree pangolins, giant pangolins have all but become extinct as a result of the expansion in population growth, urban and rural settlement sprawls, agricultural activities and increased numbers of poachers. The most common species still very much around are the long tail and tree climbing pangolins.

According to Chief Ekokola Adolf Nwese of Esuikutan Bakoko village in Korup National Park, pangolins used to be very easy to poach. “With just a touch, it was just enough to get it to surrender”. In his day, poaching of pangolins was by hand. But the scarcity of the giant pangolin is a mystery to him, “This is because hunters and poachers are no longer respecting traditional hunting rules,” Chief Ekolola believes.

Pangolins scales used to be thrown away after the animal was killed until Asians started buying them a few years ago, Chief Ekolola told this reporter.

In an inclusive interview with Adonis Ambui, leader of a group of pangolin poachers with more than 15 years of experience in Mundemba, most strategies employed by government and wildlife conservationists aimed at halting hunting or poaching of class A animals including pangolins have failed because the poachers have no other means of earning a livelihood. “If poaching has to stop, there is a need to train poachers with specialised skills like being a mechanic or doing computer and television repairs,” Ambui states.

According to Eric Kaba Tah, an official working with the international NGO Last Great Ape (LAGA), the government needs to do more to reduce the current poaching rate. The trade is being influenced by unemployment and income poverty. Many do not bother about the laws in place. The network is very complex because most transactions are conducted through telephones and other modern communication means, making it more complex and sophisticated.

For his part, Lekealem Joseph, the Director of Wildlife and Protected Areas in Cameroon’s Ministry of Forestry and Wildlife, affirms that the government intends to be more active, mostly in markets in urban centres. “Government should do more seizures, destruction and arrests with harder jail terms for those who violate the law. The national brigade is currently strategising on how to track and monitor most pangolin sales points on a permanent basis,” he warns.

However, investigations reveal that the trade is expanding. Many Cameroonians are involved in the collection of scales in the rural areas. The two major cities are Yaoundé and Douala, where the major exports to foreign markets, notably in Asia, takes place.

East Region

In the East Region trading in pangolins is mostly conducted between poachers and women who operate local restaurants. Most of the ladies spoken to admitted that the demand for pangolins is very high because they are considered a tasty delicacy. However, very few had any knowledge about the trade in scales except to say that certain people come around from time to time to buy them. They actually don’t know what they do with them.

After separating the meat from the scales, the scales are washed and dried in the sun for about a week. They are then preserved in a warm place for local buyers who came round occasionally to buy them. Because of the increase in the number of pangolin scales available for sale recently, the price has steadily increased. Many people are now getting into the pangolin business because it’s very profitable. The demand is higher for the scales than for the meat itself.

South Region

In the South Region pangolins are considered special and only eaten by wealthy people. The cost is relatively high here as compared to other regions. The trade in meat and scales is not yet popular. Some people still throw away the scales and only eat the meat. Most of the people this investigator talked to affirmed that pangolins are becoming scarce in the market. Poachers only bring them from time to time. However, part of the reason is that most of them prefer to take their products to Yaoundé directly because it is a very profitable market where people are ready to pay any price.

Centre Region

In the Centre Region the role of agents who buy from rural zones and then bring the products to the city is very strong. Many agents buy from poachers in rural areas to supply customers in urban centres, including Chinese business people who eventually export them out of the country. Many of the agents we interviewed affirmed that the transactions are complex because of the risks of seizures by eco-guards. They admit, however, that selling live pangolins is more profitable than dead ones.

Many local agents before the year 2000 did not know the importance of pangolin scales, and used to throw them away. However, the story is different today; they keep them for agents who come around to buy once the quantity is reasonable. Our investigation revealed that the main assembly points are Yaoundé and Douala where Chinese business people buy and package pangolin products for shipment to international markets in Asia.

Fighting back

The fight against the trafficking of pangolin scales was launched by Cameroon’s Ministry of Forestry and Wildlife (MINFOF) and gained momentum with the arrest of two Chinese men who were caught at Douala International airport with 5 kg of pangolin scales on 20 January 2017. The two smugglers, Yao Baolong and Chen Peng, before their arrest were operating as businessmen in Douala. The two Chinese nationals were arrested and jailed for six months in New Bell Prison and each fined CFA 13 million (US$24,274). The success of these operations was thanks to the collective action of customs, eco-guards and the police.

During police questioning the two men confirmed that they had been operating the business alongside Cameroonians who buy the scales in rural areas, notably the East, Centre, South and Southwest Regions. According to reliable information from the immigration police, Yao Baolong and Chen Peng left Cameroon immediately after they were released from New Bell Prison in July 2017.

Many other underground agents have also been caught with contact telephone number of their counterparts and syndicates in Asia as evidence of trading with partners in that part of the world.

It should be noted that according to Ministerial circular No. 0007/LC/MINFOF/DFAF/SVEF of 11 January 2017, a ban has been placed on the poaching, commercialisation and exportation of pangolins and pangolin scales. The pangolin is now classified under class A animals and considered as an endangered species totally protected because of the risk of extinction.

More efforts and resources are needed to increase law enforcement and population monitoring. Norms on subsistence hunting are seldom respected. Videos have been recorded demonstrating how the sale of pangolin products is carried out daily.

Conclusions and recommendations

Reliable findings indicate that most of the poaching in the four regions of Cameroon discussed here occurs in rural communities. Pangolin poaching is provoked by certain underlying factors including:

  • Income poverty
  • Youth unemployment
  • High demand from foreign buyers
  • Lack of environmental education
  • Lack of agrarian livelihood intervention and reform by government
  • Corruption among law enforcement officers
  • Weak and inefficient implementation of the law and gaps in enforcement

Like many other African countries, Cameroon does not consider environmental preservation as a priority because its people have their own more pressing developmental priorities. In recent years Cameroon has experienced rapid growth in population as well as unemployment and income poverty. Hence the conflict between trade and environmental degradation (e.g. poaching of pangolins) will not go away anytime soon.

The following are some recommendations to the government of Cameroon to curtail pangolin poaching:

  1. Increase support for agrarian livelihood intervention programmes including for crop production and raising of livestock. The government must:
    • Ensure the inclusion of communities’ agricultural and pastoral participants
    • Ensure interventions are market-driven and not driven by supply of community goods
    • Promote market linkages for community products (between sellers, buyers and traders) for their goods
    • Enable skills development that community participants can use in the long term or transfer to others
    • Improve access to credit and financial services, thereby linking community members with access to credit
  2. Promote enterprise development, focusing on strengthening both existing and emerging private sector and rural communities in order to enhance local economic development and expand job creation
  3. Promote public-private partnerships by working with the communities. These partnerships can be made more mutually beneficial by drawing on the expertise and resources of a range of public and private sector organisations. Private partners can be involved through advocacy, funding, investment, technical support, community volunteerism and in kind support or donations
  4. Introduction of training and placement livelihood intervention programmes involving technical vocational education, apprenticeship and formal occupational skills development
  5. Promote environmental education through local media and other available networks
  6. Forge partnerships with the international community
  7. Improve mechanisms that will ensure effective monitoring and reporting on weak and inefficient implementation of the law and gaps in enforcement
  8. Introduce harsh penalties and punitive measures for corruption among law enforcement officers
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