Wildlife officials made one of the biggest ever seizures of pangolin scales in the Central African sub-region on January 3, 2017, taking hold of over five tons of pangolin scales and two Chinese traffickers. Following information they received on wildlife trafficking concerning a Douala-based company run by some Chinese nationals, a crackdown operation was carried and two solidly sealed containers were cut open to reveal close to 300 boxes filled with pangolin scales. The operation was carried out by the Littoral Regional Delegation of Forestry and Wildlife with the collaboration of the Judiciary and the police in Douala. The Last Great Ape Organisation (LAGA) provided technical assistance during the operation.
The arresting team spent several hours trying to break them open the containers and the services of a welder was required. When they finally succeeded they revealed iron boxes which were welded into frames and covered with lead to disguise them when passed through scanners at the ports. The two Chinese initially resisted allowing officials inspect the premises despite the presentation of a search warrant. The two managers claimed the containers had broken machines which were about to be exported to China for repairs.
One of the managers looked more worried, kept smoking cigarettes for long hours as he tried several diversionary tactics to sway wildlife officials from breaking open the containers until two pieces of pangolin scales were found in the area. Rachelle Tchasso a forestry engineer who was part of the team explains “When we got to the place, despite the resistance of the Chinese we found the hidden containers. We also found two pangolin scales lying on the floor despite the fact that the area was cleanly swept”.
According to sources close to the operation, the containers had been packed ready for shipment out of the country since a month ago and formalities were being carried out by the traffickers to ensure smooth passage at the ports. The arrest highlights the seriousness of pangolin scale trafficking and the role played by some Chinese nationals in the illegal export of wildlife species from the country. Tchasso a says the “it should be a long and dense chain of traffickers putting together this huge quantity and we have found out that there is huge pressure on this species that has been reclassified”. Chinese are part of the problem she says “when they want to do trafficking, they go around with suitcases [of money].”
The development of pangolin scales trafficking has been very rapid over the last few years as a growing number of seizures seem to indicate a troubling trend for the species. In June last year over 4 tons of pangolin scales that was exported from Cameroon were seized in Hong Kong. From two seizures only, close to 10 tons of pangolin scales are connected with the trafficking from Cameroon to Asia. The
illegal trade in China seems to be putting a lot of pressure on this species that is barely known to many but which remains the most trafficked mammal in the world today. Experts say five tons of pangolin scales represent at least 5 000 pangolins slaughtered in the wild and conservationists are in alert mode, calling for more protection for this species.
During the last Conference of Parties of the Washington Convention held in South Africa in September 2016, pangolins were upgraded into appendix I that represents the category of wildlife with the highest levels of protection and wildlife law enforcement efforts aimed at stopping big time pangolin scale traffickers became a priority after this reclassification. The operation is definitely a step up in the country’s fight against wildlife trafficking and the complexity of this operation is a big indicator of how far wildlife officials have gone in gaining experience in wildlife law enforcement.