Int’l protections not stopping pangolin overexploitation in Cameroon

Pangolins living in Central Africa aren’t feeling the effects of a landmark decision in 2016 to protect them.

Article by John C. Cannon.

Pangolins living in Central Africa aren’t feeling the effects of a landmark decision in 2016 to protect them from a ravenous international trade, a report published in July has found.

The decision to protect the eight pangolin species under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) Appendix I in 2016, outlawing their international trade, was seen as a win for the scaly anteater-like animals, considered to be the “most illegally traded wild mammal” by the IUCN’s pangolin specialist group. Pangolins have long been a favorite target of bushmeat hunters across Africa, but surging demand from Asia for the animals’ scales, which are used in traditional medicines, have driven up hunting pressure on African pangolins.

Until now, however, it has been unclear whether the pronouncements at the 2016 CITES conference have actually made an impact at the level of the countries that are home to pangolins. So researcher Marius Talla and his colleagues at Action for Environmental Governance, an NGO based in Yaoundé, Cameroon, decided to investigate the effects of pangolin protections. With data from Cameroon as a case study, they hoped to get a read on how pangolins are faring across six Central African countries: Cameroon, Gabon, Equatorial Guinea, Central African Republic, Democratic Republic of Congo and Republic of Congo.

As hunters of Asia’s native species, all four of which are either endangered or critically endangered according to the IUCN, have depleted pangolin populations there, hunting in Africa has risen by at least 145 percent since 1972, according to a study published in 2017 in the journalConservation Letters. The authors of that study calculated that hunters take between 420,000 and 2.71 million pangolins from Central African forests each year. The IUCN lists the four species of pangolin found in Africa as vulnerable.

Just like in other Central African countries, bushmeat hunters in Cameroon go after pangolins for meat, as they have for a long time, Talla said in an email to Mongabay.

“Pangolin consumption is part of the local culture,” he said. “It is a popular meal (like most bushmeat) especially in forest areas where communities do not have the financial means to substitute bushmeat for other types of meat such as beef.”

But the push for scales to slake demand in Asia has changed the economics of pangolin hunting, Talla said.

“Because of this, the pangolin is a very profitable animal because nothing is lost,” he said. “Its flesh is consumed or sold and its scales are certainly selling.”

Pangolin prices across the region in 2014 were up to nearly six times what they were in 1972, the authors of the Conservation Letters study reported.

The intention of the CITES regulations was to curb the rampant harvest of pangolins. And in the wake of the announcement, government agencies and local and international NGOs in Cameroon have rolled out awareness campaigns aimed at imparting the importance of protecting pangolins. The Cameroonian government also took a step toward codifying those protections into its own laws at the urging of the Ministry of Forests and Wildlife in 2017.

But the team’s investigations revealed that pangolin meat is still readily available throughout Cameroon.

“Traders know that pangolin trading is banned and hide it to serve only trusted customers,” Talla said. However, he added, “we easily found pangolins in markets and restaurants in Yaoundé and Ebolowa.” Yaoundé is the country’s political capital, and Ebolowa is a large agricultural center in Cameroon’s South region.

The reason for this continuing exploitation despite the legal safeguards is multifaceted. Talla said the cultural attachment to eating pangolin meat wasn’t confined to farmers living near the forest.

“[The] magistrates, most of whom are themselves consumers of bushmeat, do not easily understand that someone has to be put in jail just for that,” Talla said. The 2017 law that confers the country’s highest protections on pangolins authorizes a penalty of 3 million to 10 million CFA francs ($5,300 to $17,500), or up to three years in prison for having, killing, capturing or trading pangolins.

Talla also said the judicial system in Cameroon was prone to lengthy slowdowns, and judges often didn’t know the full suite of wildlife laws. Further complicating the court process is the disconnect between the forests and wildlife ministry and the prosecutors charged with bringing cases to trial.

Another factor is the lack of resources available to wildlife enforcement agencies. For example, the “anti-poaching brigade” of each of Cameroon’s 10 regions has a budget of just 500,000 CFA francs ($880).

Talla and his colleagues now plan to delve deeper into what’s necessary in wildlife enforcement to protect endangered species. They hope such an investigation will help them understand whether strengthening enforcement will help benefit species in the long run.

Talla also pointed out that shadowing all levels of government is the specter of corruption, and if pangolins — and other wildlife — are going to benefit from sweeping international protections, that pervasive issue must be addressed.

As the team references in the report, the 2017 Corruption Perceptions Index, carried out by Transparency International, put Cameroon 153rd out of 180 countries. (New Zealand, perceived to be the world’s least corrupt country, ranks first.) In the late 1990s, Transparency International pegged Cameroon as the most corrupt country on Earth, Talla said.

“The fight for the conservation of wildlife endangered species cannot succeed if it is not associated with a strong anti-corruption program,” he said. “Corruption in Cameroon is a challenge for the authorities and unfortunately this does not spare the forest and wildlife sector.”

Banner image of a long-tailed pangolin courtesy of the Sangha Lodge Pangolin Conservation Project/WCS.

John Cannon is a Mongabay staff writer based in the Middle East. Find him on Twitter:@johnccannon

Citation

Ingram, D. J., Coad, L., Abernethy, K. A., Maisels, F., Stokes, E. J., Bobo, K. S., … & Holmern, T. (2018). Assessing Africa‐Wide Pangolin Exploitation by Scaling Local Data. Conservation Letters, 11(2), e12389.

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