Record Singapore Bust Puts Scrutiny On Overlooked Pangolin

In this Thursday, June 19, 2014, file photo, a pangolin carries its baby at a Bali zoo in Bali, Indonesia. Singapore has seized more than 25 tons of pangolin scales belonging to tens of thousands of endangered animals in two busts over the past week, a global record for such seizures. The pangolin scales are in high demand in Asia for use in traditional Chinese medicine. (AP Photo/Firdia Lisnawati, File)


— Singapore has seized more than 28 tons of pangolin scales belonging to around 38,000 of the endangered mammals over the past week, a global record that spurred calls for more protection for pangolins.

The scales, which were found in shipping containers, have been linked to four species of pangolins native to Africa.

Officials found a record 14.2 tons of the scales hidden among packets of frozen beef last Wednesday. Five days later, they found 14 more tons in 474 bags in another container. The National Parks Board, Singapore Customs and the Immigration and Checkpoints Authority said in a statement on Wednesday that the cargo was declared as cassia seeds. Both shipments were en route from Nigeria to Vietnam.

“The sheer size of these two latest seizures is unprecedented and will undoubtedly prove a major setback to the traffickers concerned,” said Richard Thomas of monitoring network Traffic. He warned that the seizures themselves won’t put the traffickers out of business. “The quantities of pangolins involved point to sourcing, processing and distribution on an industrial scale,” he added.

The pangolin, also known as scaly anteater, is said to be the most widely trafficked mammal in the world. Pangolin scales are made of keratin, the same material in human fingernails. Its scales are in high demand in Asia for use in traditional Chinese medicine. Their meat is also considered a delicacy in China and other Asian countries.

Wildlife groups are concerned that the busts point to a jump in poaching of pangolins.

“The World Health Organization recently endorsed traditional medicine and the industry appears keen to grow this market, outside of China, Vietnam and beyond,” said Neil D’Cruze, the global wildlife adviser at the World Animal Protection. “This is an alarming move for some wildlife species such as pangolins, as it poses a real conservation and animal welfare threat.”

Pangolins are an extremely lucrative catch, he said. In rural communities where they’re hunted, poachers can make up to the equivalent of a full year’s salary from catching just one pangolin. Feeding “the insatiable demand” are middlemen traffickers who also profit from the trade that’s reaching more remote communities to hunt the animal, he added.

Paul Thomson, an official at the Pangolin Specialist Group, said it looks like the pangolin poaching has increased but figures were difficult to ascertain.

“The illegal trade in pangolin parts has been going on for decades. However, pangolins have typically been overlooked in terms of concerted conservation attention and action,” Thomson told The Associated Press. “This is changing thanks to growing awareness of pangolins. And this awareness has partly been driven by the high volumes of trafficking seen today.”