Nearly 900,000 pangolins trafficked in South-east Asia over two decades: Watchdog

Chinese Customs officials inspecting scales of pangolins they seized from a ship in Shenzhen on Nov 29, 2017. PHOTO: REUTERS

KUALA LUMPUR (AFP) - Nearly 900,000 pangolins are believed to have been trafficked across South-east Asia in the past two decades, a wildlife watchdog said on Thursday (Feb 20), highlighting the challenge in tackling the illicit trade.

As the world's most heavily trafficked mammal, the creatures are targeted for their body parts, which are highly valued in traditional medicine in countries, including China and Vietnam, and their meat is seen as a delicacy.

Also known as the scaly anteater, the shy, primarily nocturnal animals have been heavily poached for years in biodiverse South-east Asia and are being increasingly targeted in Africa.

In a new report, watchdog Traffic estimated that about 895,000 pangolins had been smuggled between 2000 and 2019 in South-east Asia.

It also noted that more than 96,000kg of the creatures' scales were seized in Malaysia, Singapore and Vietnam between 2017 and 2019 alone.

"Not a day goes by without a wildlife seizure taking place in Southeast Asia, and all too often in volumes that are jaw dropping," said Ms Kanitha Krishnasamy, director for Traffic in the region.

Rampant trade

In 2016, the pangolin was given the highest level of protection by the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (Cites), meaning that all trade in the mammal is banned. Prior to that, trade was allowed under strict conditions.

But protection groups say the illicit business is still rampant and Traffic called for stronger laws and penalties, and for authorities to shut down markets and online platforms selling protected wildlife.

Researchers investigating the origin of the deadly coronavirus outbreak in China have said that the endangered animal may be the link that facilitated the spread of the illness, officially known as Covid-19, to humans.

Scientists have long suspected that the virus, which has killed more than 2,100 people and infected 74,000, was passed from an animal to a human at a market in the central Chinese city of Wuhan late last year.

Traffic also said on Thursday that about 225,000kg of African elephant ivory, 100,000 pig-nosed turtles and 45,000 songbirds were seized in South-east Asia in recent years.

Join ST's Telegram channel and get the latest breaking news delivered to you.