Poachers nabbed with SA’s scaly treasure

Last Tuesday, a tip-off led to nature conservationists and the police conducting a roadblock on a main road in the Hammanskraal area — and found a live pangolin under the seat of a Mercedes-Benz C-class sedan.

The highly sought-after animal’s movement was constricted with wire mesh and a piece of wood, and it was without food or water, on the brink of death.

Two men travelling from Limpopo were arrested and charged with poaching. Though small in size, the anteater-like creature covered in scales was worth close to R100 000 on the black market.

A collective of animal rights activists has now sounded the alarm over the poaching of pangolins in South Africa and on the continent, and warned that the escalating number of killings threatens the species’ very existence.

“Current trading hot spots for pangolin in South Africa stretch in an arc from Polokwane in the north to Tzaneen and Phalaborwa in the east and then south to Hoedspruit,” the chairperson of the African Pangolin Working Group, Ray Jansen, told the Mail & Guardian this week.

The pangolin is the world’s most hunted and illegally traded mammal and is native to West and Southern Africa, as well as Asia.

In South Africa, pangolins are found in Limpopo, Mpumalanga, North West, northern KwaZulu-Natal and northeastern Cape. Covered in brown scales, they grow less than a metre in length and survive on a diet of ants and termites, picking them from the ground with their 40 cm-long tongue.

When it senses danger, the pangolin rolls itself up or secretes a noxious acid to protect itself.

Jansen is professor of population and community ecology in the faculty of science at the Tshwane University of Technology, and started the working group in June 2011. By September, his working group had already seized about 34 tonnes of scales destined for Asia.

Pangolins are poached for their scales, which are used in traditional medicines and spiritual rituals in some Asian countries. The trade in pangolins has skyrocketed since 2009, Jansen said, and a live animal is now worth up to R120 000.

“The decline in Asian pangolin numbers has resulted in the African species being targeted. Large volumes of African pangolin scales have been and are seized in Asia emanating from Africa,” Jansen said.

There are four species of pangolin in Africa. The Temminck ground pangolin is native to South Africa and is protected by the National Environmental Management: Biodiversity Act. In Limpopo the pangolin is a specially protected wild animal under the Limpopo Environmental Management Act.

Poachers face a fine of up to R10-million or 10 years in prison if caught in possession of the animal. But threats of prison time and high fines have not deterred poachers, Jansen said. In 2016 two people were arrested for being possession of a pangolin and sentenced to three years in prison without an option of a fine.

“This is the harshest sentence for pangolin poaching in South Africa but is obviously not harsh enough. Furthermore, a number of pangolin poachers were granted bail [of R500] and they are now all on the run,” he said.

Govan Whittles

Govan Whittles is a general news and political multimedia journalist at the Mail & Guardian. Born in King William's Town in the Eastern Cape, he cut his teeth as a radio journalist at Primedia Broadcasting. He produced two documentaries and one short film for the Walter Sisulu University, and enjoys writing about grassroots issues, national politics, identity, heritage and hip-hop culture.


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