By Simon Bloch
Cape Town - Hong Kong customs authorities made the largest seizure worldwide of endangered African pangolin last week when they discovered more than 1 000kg of pangolin scales in a shipping container that originated in South Africa.
This most recent seizure comes amid concern over the growing levels of illegal trade in pangolins and other threatened wildlife species.
International trade in pangolin is banned under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (Cites).
But with prices and the demand for pangolin flesh and scales high in China, illegal wildlife-trafficking syndicates are prepared to take risks.
The seizure at the Kwai Chung Custom House examination compound, the largest seizure of pangolin at Hong Kong’s port in five years, is estimated to be worth R5-million.
According to a report from the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region, customs officers selected a shipment arriving from South Africa for inspection through risk assessment. The container had been declared as “plastic pet”.
Officers discovered the pangolin scales concealed in 40 of the 510 bags of goods and impounded it for investigation.
The cargo was not listed on the shipping manifest. It is not clear at which port the container was loaded, and the vessel has not been named.
Darren Pieterson, chairman of the African Pangolin Working Group, said the shipment could account for the illegal poaching of more than 300 endangered Temminck’s ground pangolin.
“This trade is having catastrophic effects on the populations of all of the remaining eight pangolin species world-wide, with the Asian pangolin populations showing dramatic declines in recent years. Illegal trade is rife in central and west Africa and was known to occur at low levels in southern Africa prior to this incident. This most recent seizure indicates that illegal trade is widespread in southern Africa as well, and is far from being sustainable,” Pieterson said.
“We urge authorities in all range states to take a strong stand against all cases of pangolin poaching and to send a strong message that their country’s natural heritage is not there to be plundered.”
Temminck’s ground pangolins are listed as vulnerable in South Africa and protected in terms of the National Environmental Management Biodiversity Act 10 of 2004.
Wildlife trade monitoring service Traffic, which records illegal seizures worldwide, calls the situation over insatiable demand for pangolin meat in China “desperate”, and now sees an increase in African pangolin hunted for the Asian restaurant market.
An estimated 8 000 pangolin were traded last year, and 117 000 to 234 000 were illegally traded between January 2011 and December last year.
According to Hong Kong law, any person found guilty of importing unmanifested cargoes is liable to a maximum fine of $2 million and imprisonment for seven years.