Pangolins are one of the most threatened animals on earth, yet most people have never heard of them. Not only are pangolins being poached at an alarming rate but their fragile habitats are being rapidly destroyed by poachers. Pangolins are reclusive nocturnal creatures and the only mammal wholly covered in scales. They remain elusive, with researchers having limited knowledge of their ecology, yet they are now arguably the most heavily trafficked wild mammal in the world, mostly in sub-Saharan Africa and Asia. They have traditionally been consumed in both regions.
Today, the demand for pangolins in Asia is being supplied by the animals from Africa. In both regions, pangolins are killed for their meat and their scales, which are used medicinally. Pangolin products have been used in traditional Chinese medicine for thousands of years to treat a wide range of ailments. The scales are said to promote blood circulation and increase lactation in pregnant women, while the meat is used as a tonic. They are also used as medicine in Africa. In Nigeria, for example, pangolin parts are used to treat a wide range of physical and psychological conditions. As a result of the medicinal values of pangolins, Nigeria, home to three of the four African pangolin species, has been identified as a major transit country for trafficking wildlife products, especially pangolin scales and ivory between Africa and Asia. Illegal pangolin trade in Nigeria seems to have grown significantly in recent years, and the country reported the provenance of at least 51 tons of pangolin scales seized in 2019. Despite the growing trade of pangolin in the country, Nigeria is a party to the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES), which, through its Appendix 1 listing (effective from January 2017), prohibits international commercial trade of wild-caught pangolins and their derivatives.
Additionally, Nigeria’s wildlife harvest and trade legislation, the Endangered Species Act No 11 of 1985 (amended in 2016) listed pangolins under Schedule I, prohibiting the hunting or capture of or trade in pangolins (Endangered Species (Control of International Trade and Traffic) Act, 1985, Contravention of the Act by hunting, possessing, or trading in pangolins attracts a fine of N5 million revised from N1,000 stated in the 1985 version of the Act – for the first offence and one-year imprisonment without the option of a fine for the second and subsequent offences. However, despite these regulations, Nigeria has been involved in more reported pangolin trafficking incidents than any other African country. Other transits and logistical hubs for pangolin and wildlife trafficking in Africa are Uganda and the Democratic Republic of Congo. Pangolins are very important pest controllers in nature. They feed primarily on ants and termites and one pangolin can consume as many as 70 million insects (mainly ants and termites) in one year. They, therefore, act to keep the population of these insects in check. This saves the farmers millions in terms of crops and produces safety and saves the consumers of such foods from pesticide-laden foods. This also saves other useful insects like the pollinators (bees and butterflies) that would have been wiped out by the inordinate use of pesticides to control ants and termites. Also, the pangolin by its natural habits of feeding which includes using sharp and hard claws to tear barks of trees, ant nests, and termitaria ensure a rich substrate and aeration and loosening of the topsoil which in turn ensures rich and lush vegetation and plant growth. Pangolins are slow reproducing with a pup born every 18 months and the uncontrolled poaching activities are pushing these shy but useful creatures to the brink of extinction. The earth is robbed of superb functions with the resultant decrease in crop yields and thus contributing to the ever-worsening state of food security. The use of pesticides to cover the functional loss of the pangolins immensely decimates other useful life forms including pollinators and thus further decreases crop yield.
Furthermore, trade in wildlife parts including the illegal trafficking of pangolin scales has been linked to funding organised crime and terrorism, and insecurity in general. Pangolins are a keystone species. This means that they play a key role in the preservation of the ecosystem. The keystone in an arch, for example, is the one stone that holds every other in place and its removal will cause a collapse of the entire arch. So also the pangolin plays a key role in the preservation of the ecosystem and a loss of these species would cause a cascade that will have a negative effect on the environment. Other species would disappear from their niche and new and probably invasive species would fill their place to the detriment of the ecosystem. Pangolins play an important role in keeping the ant and termite population in check and saving billions of naira in agriculture and also drastically reduce the need for the use of pesticides that kill off other useful insects like pollinators and poison human foods. Ants and termites also consume dense acreage of foliage and compete with herbivores for these. Also, the digging and foraging activities of these termites open up topsoil and allow the substrate to be thoroughly mixed with proper aeration and thus allowing for a richer land for plants to grow both for agriculture and nature.
A veterinarian and conservationist, Dr Mark Ofua, said pangolins in Nigeria are on the brink of extinction. He said the illegal trade in pangolins and their scales is driven by the elitist taste for their flesh and the demand by the Asian markets; this indeed has made the animal the most trafficked mammal on the earth. Ofua said: “As a keystone species, the disappearance of pangolins will negatively impact us in Nigeria as our ecosystem will be in disarray. Food security would be threatened by its resultant increased hardship. Nigeria is blessed to be one of the few places in the world where pangolins thrive and it is indeed our national heritage. We therefore must preserve this heritage for our children by paying heed to its conservation. “The race to save our pangolins involves everyone. The greatest key to ensuring this is awareness creation and this is the main focus of WildAid, an NGO that is passionate about conservation. We must raise awareness levels on the plight our pangolins face using every medium in our arsenal. Social media, news, and print media should be agog with the stories of our beloved pangolins and why we need to save them. Even our pulpits by religious bodies should be preaching the mantra of conservation. Education of the masses both formal and informal must be exploited. “It is high time for Nigeria to send a strong signal to the world that she is ready to fight for and protect her national heritage, the pangolins, and that her borders will no longer be used as a transit hub for the illegal trafficking of pangolins and their scales.”
On his part, WildAid Nigeria Representative, Kelechukwu Iruoma, said the organisation is determined to tackle the illegal trafficking of pangolin in Nigeria. He said, In January, WildAid launched Africa’s largest-ever awareness campaign to raise awareness of the threats facing wildlife in Nigeria, which include pangolins.
“The pangolin is an endangered species and there is a need to sensitize Nigerians on the need to protect pangolins and stop the consumption of pangolins, which is illegal. WildAid is working with the government to update its wildlife laws and support enforcement agencies to promote enforcement efforts. WildAid is also collaborating with newspapers, television stations and radio stations to improve the coverage of issues affecting pangolins in Nigeria.”