Inside The Illegal Wildlife Trade: A Pangolin’s Perspective
Terror. Pain. Loss. Confusion. These are sensations undoubtedly experienced by the unnumbered victims of the illegal wildlife trade (IWT), yet they arerarely part of the conversation. As with so many animal issues, facts about the IWT are often reported in tons or dollars, and the impacts suffered by individual animals are often lost in the vastness of the scope of the trade. Yet this lived experience is at the heart of all we do as advocates. In this unconventional paper, the author brings a fictional, individualized narrative together with what is currently known about the illegal pangolin trade, giving readers a new lens through which to understand not only its devastating impact on a species, but its tragic destruction of each unique life it touches.
The author takes a carefully considered approach in drawing the reader into the subjective experience of an individual pangolin. They avoid imposing an anthropomorphic framework on the animal, not giving her a name or an internal dialogue. And yet, tapping into a knowledge of the pangolin’s environment, anatomy, and natural behaviors, the author paints a compelling and relatable picture of how the animal experiences each stage of her captivity. This approach lends color and significance to a well-researched summary of the history and current legal and economic contours of the illegal pangolin trade.
Pangolins have been hunted in East and Southeast Asia for centuries by subsistence hunters for meat and skin and for scales traditionally believed to possess medicinal qualities. By 1931, wild pangolins had become economically extinct in China, so rare that the country began to rely on imported pangolins. Gradually a newly prosperous upper class in China with an appetite for luxury goods increased the demand for imported pangolins. The largely illegal but lucrative pangolin trade attracted well-connected middlemen, who pay local hunters a pittance for the animals before passing them along to a complex network of smugglers, processors, and pawns.
A fairly robust international legal protection structure is in place, but suffers for lack of enforcement and enforceability. As with all organized crime, pangolin traffickers have sophisticated strategies to avoid prosecution. Sometimes they deliver their product by postal service or recruit unwitting drivers. Sometimes they carry out trades on the internet or on international waters. Often they disguise their products as legal products, mislabeling meat or hiding live pangolins within larger, legal shipments. Never are the kingpins themselves present during exchanges where they could be caught and implicated. Source countries and destination countries have tightened restrictions and increased penalties for those caught buying and selling protected animals illegally, but a lack of financial resources, training, and community buy-in compromise the effectiveness of these measures. Between 2005 and 2015, China carried out 122 seizures of pangolins, which yielded only 15 arrests, which led to only 7 convictions, which resulted in only $250-$750 in fines and 6-18 months jail time per person. During this time pangolins have become increasingly endangered, with wild populations declining by 80% between 1998 and 2019.
The scale of the pangolin tragedy is immense, but the individual suffering is no less significant. The author weaves a story of a lone female pangolin, exploring and hunting in her nocturnal forest home, briefly encountering a fellow pangolin before going their separate ways. She is at home in the familiar setting, reassured by the sights and smells and sounds that help her make sense of her world. Suddenly, there is pain, and terror, and close confinement, strange sounds and smells, itching and illness from parasites passed between the filthy, cramped, and unfed animals. Though this pangolin is among those lucky enough to be seized and rescued, rather than murdered and harvested, there is no happy ending. Returning her to her wild home would expose other wild pangolins to diseases and parasites she acquired during her captivity. Instead, she is transferred to a shelter where, isolated, confined, and robbed of all meaningful agency, she soon sinks into listlessness, and dies.
It is this profound individual loss, multiplied millions of times, that we seek to prevent when we fight the illegal trade of wild animals. This is why we must encourage the people that live among them to protect their local pangolin population as a resource. We must facilitate community development so trappers have alternative means of survival. We must be sensitive and work to reconcile traditional medicinal beliefs and with the need to preserve a culturally important animal. We must support the legal mechanisms already in place by ensuring that enforcement agencies receive the funding and training they need to function effectively. We must educate the judiciary on the gravity of the illegal wildlife trade so they will prosecute traffickers accordingly. We must minimize the financial pull of the trade by stripping traffickers of their ill-gotten profits. We must educate consumers about the terrible costs of their purchasing.
We must act because we stand to lose a unique and beautiful species made up of millions of knowing, feeling, living individuals whose suffering or thriving depends on us.