As CITES COP17 gets underway the eyes of the conservation world are focused on Johannesburg, where the global wildlife conference is taking place. Running from 24 September to 5 October, with 181 countries participating, this will be the largest CITES meeting ever. Included in the extensive agenda covering the future of over 800 of our endangered wildlife, is the pangolin - an ancient species that has earned the unfortunate label of 'the most trafficked mammal we have never heard of.'
The pangolin's plight is indeed a global one. Of the eight species worldwide, the four Chinese and Sunda pangolins are already classified as critically endangered. The four remaining African species are rated as 'vulnerable'.
This is due to the increase in demand, principally from Asia, for its scales and meat.
To date the pangolin has remained under the radar of mainstream conservation campaigns, unlike the high profile marketing drives undertaken on behalf of elephant, rhino, tiger, leopard and lion. Not only is it extremely elusive - it is a nocturnal loner; funding shortages have also hampered research into its habitat and genealogy. Dan Challender, who co-chairs the Pangolin Specialist Group of the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) describes it as 'the forgotten species'.
But this moniker could change with COP17. At the conference, the troglodyte creature - its origins date back over 80 million years - will occupy one of the centre stages, alongside its more visible mammalian counterparts. Conservationists have been lobbying vociferously for the status of the pangolin to be upgraded from Appendix 2 - subject to restricted trade - to Appendix 1 - a total ban on commercial trade. In early September the IUCN World Conservation Congress in Hawaii passed a resolution urging all its members to support the transfer of all eight pangolin species from Appendix II to Appendix I of CITES.
The decision will be made on the 5th October, the final day of the conference. "We must embrace our endangered species as a country, continent and as the world, to speak in one, united voice, says Ray Jansen, Chairperson of the African Pangolin Working Group (APWG) - a non-profit organization established in 2011 to research, raise awareness and lobby for greater protection of the species. "We must show that pangolins are untouchable, that trade is a no-no. This requires removing demand and increasing stiff penalties for all wildlife crimes, in general, and pangolin trafficking, in particular.'
But unity could prove as elusive as the pangolin itself and the debate is expected to be volatile. Most African countries support the proposal to uplist the Pangolin's status - including Côte d'Ivoire, Ghana, Malawi, Mozambique, Nigeria, Somalia, Uganda and Zambia. But, surprisingly, in its response to the consultation proposal sent to 40 CITES member countries, Namibia has expressed vociferous opposition to the proposal to transfer the pangolin to Appendix I, for the following reasons:
1) the local and regional wild population of this species is not well researched and documented;
2) there is no verifiable literature and data as evidence of the decline of the wild population of the species locally or regionally;
3) except for an average of 3 skins per year within the Namibian territory, there is inadequate verifiable recorded hunting and trade cases of the species.
But while acknowledging there are insufficient statistics, conservationists and scientists point out that, based on seizures of pangolin scales and meat transported from Africa to Asia, over 1 million pangolins are estimated to have been poached in the last decade. The rate at which they are being slaughtered for scales and meat is therefore completely unsustainable.
Says Rynette Coetzee, who is the Biodiversity Officer at the Gauteng Department of Agriculture and Rural Development (GDARD): " Although we have no idea how many pangolin are left in South Africa, if one does a risk assessment, it is necessary to err on the side of caution. This is because huge amounts of scales are leaving South Africa and the continent, which make the survival of the species unsustainable. "
For example in July this year, Hong Kong Customs seized over 4000 kilograms of pangolin scales hidden in a container labeled "sliced plastics" from Cameroon. This represent up to six thousand pangolins - the largest seizure of pangolin scales in five years.
Unsurprisingly, perhaps, China and Japan will oppose the upgrading of the species. They cite the use of pangolin scales in ancient traditional medicine as a reason. Indeed Pangolin body parts have been used for centuries in both traditional Asian and African medicine. But it is evident that in Asia, especially China and Vietnam, pangolin scales are now being exploited for everything from fashion items to status symbols and the species is being eaten to extinction. The massive and growing scale of consumption has resulted in the dwindling of the Asian pangolin species. Inevitably, Africa has become the next port of call. As a result of the spiking demand for pangolins overseas, it is being trafficked from Africa as a lucrative commodity.
Conservationists say they are 'cautiously optimistic' that the upgrading will be approved by CITES. However, to what extent this will be effective is debatable.
"The upgrading of the pangolin - as with all our endangered wildlife - can be effective, or it will be completely toothless," warns the APWG's Rob Bruyns. "As is the case with South Africa's progressive conservation legislation, laws can be passed, but unless they are effectively implemented and enforced on the ground, they will have no effect on the illegal trade. "
- Supplied by Conservation Action Trust