Illegal trafficking of pangolins to China and other Asian countries is making them highly endangered as central African countries try to extend protections for the reclusive ant-eating mammals.

Pangolins are burrowing animals with overlapping scales; conical heads; and long, sticky tongues that enable them to eat mostly ants and termites. Nocturnal and secretive, they have been difficult for scientists to study in the wild. They’ve also become the most trafficked wild mammals in the world, according to the Zoological Society of London.

The illegal trade is driven mainly by high demand for pangolin scales, which are used in traditional Chinese medicine and as ornaments. The skin is traded to produce leather products.

Pangolins also have been hunted as food: The meat is considered a delicacy in several central African countries, including Cameroon, Democratic Republic of Congo, Equatorial Guinea, Gabon, Ivory Coast, and Nigeria.

More Organized Smuggling Operations

All eight species of pangolin, found in Asia and Africa, are classified as threatened with extinction, according to the International Union for Conservation of Nature Red List of Threatened Species.

More than 1 million pangolins were traded illegally between 2000 and 2016, primarily to China, making them the most trafficked wild mammal in the world, according to the IUCN, which banned international trade in pangolins in 2016.

Smuggling is becoming more sophisticated over remote routes from the Congo Basin and largely on to Asia, Katharine Abernethy, an ecologist at the University of Stirling in Scotland and team leader at the university’s African Forest Ecology Group, told Bloomberg Environment.

In the past, local hunters were employed by traders in African tropical forests, but now there is evidence that criminal export networks are turning to specialized hunters and equipping them so that they can get to remote places, away from law enforcement, Abernethy said.

“This seems to be what is happening now in most countries in Central Africa where pangolin poaching is very high,” said Abernethy, a co-author of a recent study in the African Journal of Ecology on commercial trade in pangolins in Gabon.

According to Aurelie Flore Koumba Pambo, head of science for the Gabon’s National Agency for National Parks, countries in central Africa are aware that illegal trade in endangered species is major catalyst to erosion of biodiversity and a threat to environmental integrity.

“It also undermines good governance and reduces revenue from sustainable economic utilization of wildlife-based tourism,” Pambo told Bloomberg Environment.

In Gabon, pangolins are protected by law and Crystal Mountains National Park in north Gabon has changed its emblem to a giant pangolin to create more awareness and reduce hunting.

Sourcing Pangolin Products

International seizures of illegally traded products from African pangolins increased from 4 kilograms seized in 2008 to 5.4 tons—representing 10,000 to 20,000 pangolins—in early 2017, according to the study.

But the available evidence “is likely to be a partial picture,” the authors said.

There are indications that a large number of Chinese workers in the logging industry and other China-backed projects in remote forested areas of the Congo Basin have created perfect conditions for sourcing pangolin products for a ready market in China, researchers said.

“The link between Asian industrial workers working on major projects in Africa and requests for pangolins is worrying, and warrants further investigation,” said Daniel Ingram, a conservation ecologist at the University of Sussex and a member of the African Forest Ecology Group in the Gabonese capital Libreville.

In Libreville, prices for giant African pangolins increased by 200 percent in recent years, Ingram said.

Study researchers recommended that central African countries adopt tight legal regulations with clear penalties for traders, increase law enforcement efforts, and expand surveillance of trade routes.

Coordinating Efforts

Porous borders between countries hamper monitoring of routes and roadways for illegal trafficking and enforcing customs inspections. Limited government budgets often leave law enforcement and wildlife departments understaffed and officers ill-equipped. In addition, fines against smugglers are nominal and they rarely serve jail time, according to international wildlife organizations.

Central African nations are trying to overcome these problems.

In an exclusive interview with Bloomberg Environment in Nairobi Feb. 27, Maha Ngalie, hunting service chief in the Ministry of Forestry and Wildlife in Cameroon, outlined some of the protections that have been adopted for pangolins in her country and in central Africa in general.

“Pangolin scales are now more sought after than even elephant ivory and rhino horns, which has put us on notice that we have to do more to protect pangolins,” she said.

The Cameroon government suspended hunting of all species of pangolin in 2013 under Order No. 0565 and campaigned for the endangered species to be put on the red list, Appendix I of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES), she said.

The threat to pangolins in central Africa is real and countries of origin have asked China and Vietnam to ban trade in pangolin products, Ngalie said.

“The main problem continues to be the illegal commercial poaching of pangolins for their scales that have a high demand in China and Vietnam,” she told Bloomberg Environment.

Central African governments are developing multiagency task forces with customs law enforcement officials, wildlife departments, and transportation and logistics companies to expand monitoring of smuggling routes and zero in on markets and other destinations, Ngalie said.

In Cameroon and Gabon plans are underway to enhance jail terms for criminals, a practice that is likely to be adopted by other members of the Congo Basin Forest Partnership, she added.

Helping Hands

Protecting pangolins and other endangered species in central Africa would not be possible without combined efforts and support from other friendly countries worldwide, Lekealem Joseph, the Cameroonian director of wildlife, said at a 2017 summit.

Countries in Central Africa that are members of the international nonprofit Congo Basin Forest Partnership, including Cameroon, Congo, Democratic Republic of Congo, Equatorial Guinea, and Gabon, are committed to conservation and protection of pangolins in the Congo Basin, according to Ngalie.

In the past 10 years, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has been a loud voice for conservation of pangolins in central Africa, where its experts urged countries in the region to update their laws to reflect the CITES ban in trade and hunting of all species of pangolins.

In addition to legal protection, these countries also support MENTOR-POP (Progress on Pangolins), a collaboration of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the Zoological Society of London, that’s developing a transdisciplinary initiative of training conservation and protection of pangolin experts in the Congo Basin.

A MENTOR-POP project training program on forensic techniques now underway will enable wildlife officials to support law enforcement efforts and investigations into the trade chain.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service also has been training forestry and national parks officials on ways to counter pangolin trafficking.

“We are determined to eradicate killing of pangolins,” Francis Nchembi Tarla, a wildlife expert in Cameroon, told Bloomberg Environment.