Illegal Pangolin Trade in Sub-Saharan Africa and Its Reflection on the International Political Economy

What a “Scaly Anteater” Can Teach Us About International Relations and Informal Economic Sectors

By Julianna Sterling ’23

International Studies, French and Economics majors

Brief Description: An analysis on illegal trading and poaching of the African pangolin in the face of increasing Asian enterprise presence in Sub-Saharan Africa, and how these interactions can overshadow localized demand sources for the animal. This literature touches on themes of data availability, population growth, and international measurements of illegal animal trade.

The following was written for International Political Economy course (POL 375).

Photo credit: CGTN Africa

As international economic development continues to advance urbanization, access to technology, standard of living, and population size in Sub-Saharan Africa, it is imperative to analyze the impacts of this growth on all sectors of the economy, and how one change may influence others. These impacts can be seen especially in industries involving illegal wildlife trade, where foreign influence and demand for scarce animal derivatives can drive poaching and violations of international conservation laws, specifically in attempt to increase the international supply of pangolin, the only known mammal with scales who is native to areas in Asia and Central Africa (Henrich et al). Given the recent economic liberalization of China and its’ associated population boom (O’Brien & Williams 2020, 128), Asian pangolin populations are reported to have become increasingly endangered by the expansion of the middle class and disposable income to spend on luxury goods, of which pangolin is included as a restaurant delicacy and instrument in traditional medicine practices (van Uhm 2020, 532). Popular international policy agencies, like the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES), who follow Western data collection practices which emphasize formal international economies find that most of this African pangolin trade is carried out internationally as exports to the United States and East Asia. However, given the bias of these data collection methods against informal economies, we can predict that international conservation efforts are less effective than ones focused on domestic trade controls. In order to fully analyze the implications of this bias and how this prediction may be reached, we must observe growing domestic informal African markets as demand factors for pangolin derivatives, how these informal markets are inaccessible to Western data collection methods, the role of China and international legislation agencies in pangolin trade, and how increases in domestic conservation and data collection efforts in Africa would eliminate this bias to increase pangolin population protections.

For context, pangolin is a typically nocturnal and solitary species which lives in savannah and woodland areas feeding on termites and ants. This predictability, low breeding rates, and its’ tendency to curl into a ball when threatened, makes hunting relatively easy for humans looking for a source of food or to harvest its’ imbricate keratinized epidermal scales, of which pangolin is the only source (Baker 2014, 14). In Africa this is a traditional practice to supply bushmeat markets, which are defined as “all hunted wildlife, predominantly in Africa, for either trading in local markets or subsistence consumption” (Robinson, Redford, & Bennett, 1999a). While these markets are not traditionally exploitative to pangolin populations, they are becoming increasingly so as human populations in Africa increase and as farmers look for sources of supplemental income during off-season periods without agricultural harvest (Boakye et al. 2016, 258). This form of increase in pangolin trade is particularly concerning because of the international tendency to underreport sales partaken in rural informal markets which are predominant in Ghana (Boakye et al. 2016, 261), Gabon (Baker 2014, 37), Togo (D’Cruze et al. 2020, 47), and other African countries.

Because rural and informal markets are less accessible to academic researchers and government-funded data collection agencies (Jerven 2013), international analytic organizations concerned with conservation efforts, including that of the pangolin, have limited knowledge on these sources of demand for wildlife derivatives. Without rural bushmeat markets being measured accurately and often, conservation agencies are missing chunks of data on how much pangolin is traded here, and how this relates to local populations or compares to international market volume. This lack of accurate informal market analysis overlooks domestic trade as a threat to pangolin populations and creates an over-exaggeration of other sources of demand, including the export of its’ derivatives, of which most go to China and Vietnam (Challender et al. 2019) or to the United States, where they are used in luxury market production or are caught in processing on route to other countries (Heinrich et al. 2016). If researchers were better able to access bushmeat markets, they might find that local pangolin trade is equal to or even outweighs trade done internationally, which would imply that current international legislation is only accounting for patrolling a small proportion of the pangolin derivative market.

Illegal pangolin trade industries in Sub-Saharan Africa are driven by a number of factors, both domestically and internationally. Domestically, pangolin poaching is appealing due to the high profit margins (prices of pangolin scales are cited to have increased tenfold in the last decade (Challender et al. 2019)), lack of conservation law enforcement (Price 2017, 2), and versatility in product use, with scales, skins, heads, penises, whole bodies, and meat being usable derivatives of the pangolin (D’Cruze et al. 2020, 54). This low-risk, high-profit potential offered is unlike many other income opportunities in the region, which typically include farming jobs and manual labor, is accessible year-round, and seen in some cultures as a preservation of traditions that are increasingly threatened by globalization (Price 2017, 7). Once pangolin is acquired, often by hunting illegally in protected forests (Boakye et al. 2016, 261), profit is attainable through sale in rural markets or illegal export, although another less-observed method of pangolin use is for subsistence purposes (Price 2017, 2). These patterns are likely to increase with time due to “more than half of human global population growth between now and 2050 being expected to occur in Africa” (D’Cruze et al. 2020, 46), which will be accompanied with increased demand for resources. This serves as potential evidence that informal domestic pangolin markets in African nations are numerous with multiple demand factors and supports the theory that they may rival in volume to international pangolin trade, emphasizing data discrepancies.

Internationally, these export markets are observed through seizure observations most reported in the United States, China, Japan, Italy, and Singapore, in which sixty-three percent of import-export trade links are accounted for (Heinrich et al. 2016). Legally, leather and skins are found to be the most popular trade commodity while scales, meat, and whole animals, both dead and alive, are traded most frequently within illegal markets. Of these trends, the increase in overall pangolin trade has the highest implication, finding that of derivatives traded, an increasing proportion of African to Asian origin has been seen since 2001 (Heinrich et al. 2016). This could be correlated with an elevated Chinese presence in Africa implemented by the China-Africa Cooperation Forum (FOCAC), established in 2000 for the purpose of African development in agriculture, infrastructure, natural resources, and tourism facilitated by Chinese investment (Holslag 2016, 148), potentially fostering the linkage of African pangolin markets with Chinese demand markets in search of alternative pangolin sources. However, Chinese presence in Central Africa created by this initiative shows that Chinese demand for pangolin is likely only seen within export observations and not domestic African consumption, with Asian laborers working in Gabon reporting high consequences for harvesting pangolin in areas surrounding their worksite and low incentive to hunt due to preferred medicinal and subsistence alternatives (Baker 2014, 10), indicating that most pangolin harvesting for export to Asia is done by African natives.

Due to these threats, African pangolin has been listed on the International Union for the Conservation of Nature’s (IUCN) Red List of Threatened Species as vulnerable since 2013 (Heinrich et al. 2016), and shortly after the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) established a commercial trade ban on pangolin derivatives of all species in 2016 (Challender et al. 2019) to ensure its’ international trade does not threaten survival through issuing of permits (Henrich et al. 2016). While this placement of pangolin trafficking on the international security agenda ensures protection agencies like CITES get more funding and authority to fulfill goals (Wyatt 2013, 149), it has been found that customs reporting in Africa has little significant accuracy due to border scanners being used more frequently on imports than exports and an overall lack of staff training to use scanners or spot illegal pangolin transportation (Baker 2014, 45). Outside of African nations, the ineffective nature of CITES policies can be seen in countries as economically secure as the United States, where there have been reported “significant discrepancies in CITES and customs reporting” due to “obvious confusion about CITES reporting requirements” (Heinrich et al. 2016). Additionally, with these discrepancies amongst CITES-permitted trade observations, the successful illegal imports and exports are not measured, and it is predicted that China “is likely to be the most dominant player in the global pangolin trade,” despite the United States holding the highest number of seizures since 2001 (Heinrich et al. 2016). This shows the inconsistency of CITES reporting, and according to Ingram et al., in order to properly implement CITES trade bans, “governments, law enforcement officials, and conservationists need to better understand the supply chains of pangolins from Africa and Asia, to implement an appropriate monitoring program, and to increase the capacity to enforce the ban and intercept illegal shipments.”

Aside from international conservationist legislation, domestic enforcement of national hunting seasons and general law enforcement initiatives have also been playing a hefty role in decreasing pangolin exploitation for international markets. In Gabon, the World Wildlife Fund’s Minkebe Project in collaboration with the Malaysian logging company, Bordamur, implemented strict enforcement of pangolin legislation by searching workers and company vehicles for pangolin use as bushmeat with the authorization of the Ministry of Water and Forests. This program saw an overall reduction in illegal poaching procedures, proving that, with sufficient funding, African nations are fully able to decrease endangered wildlife harvesting from domestic forests by use of national law enforcement (Baker 2014, 17). Other wildlife protection mechanisms within Gabon include the Ministry of Forests and Natural Resources, Agence Nationale des Parcs Nationaux, hunting seasons closed from September fifteenth to March fifteenth annually, and a forestry code which states that “small scale hunting defined as killing two animals of the same species or four animals of different species on the same day for subsistence purposes” is the majority of kills permitted (Baker 2014, 24). Additionally, within Zimbabwe a study done by Shepherd et al. reported a general fear of law enforcement activities and strong penalties for conservation law violations as deterrents to pangolin poaching, further emphasizing the efficacy of domestic law enforcement initiatives. However, another aspect of domestic policy needs to include citizen awareness, which was reportedly low in Uganda (Harrison et al., 2015) and Zimbabwe (Shepherd et al. 2016), to ensure community initiatives accompany police seizure efforts.

While tackling an issue as intwined with the international political economy as this one, it is important to acknowledge that the best method of attack will be an all-encompassing one, including both domestic and international policy to increase pangolin conservation efforts. However, to properly choose policies within these two realms, scholars should first analyze the potential biases in existing analyses explaining why this issue occurs. In most cases, the literature views the increase in pangolin trade as exacerbated by Chinese foreign policy reaching into the lives of Central African wildlife beneficiaries, taking advantage of local need for income to meet growing demand and shrinking supply of pangolin in Asia. What these papers fail to acknowledge is the preexisting historical consumption of pangolin in Africa, and how this may account for more decimation of the pangolin population than can be predicted by current survey and seizure analyses. Within pangolin studies, a majority of data on bushmeat is gathered at urban markets selling animal byproducts because they are the most easily accessible to researchers (Milner-Gulland & Akçakaya 2001), creating a bias towards urban economic interactions. For example, a study done by Conservation International- Ghana found that, despite pangolin being in the top eleven most preferred wild animal species for bushmeat amongst Ghanaians, their derivatives were very rarely discovered at urban markets. This could indicate that most instances of pangolin trade occur in rural areas, going unmeasured by data scientists who use Western data collection methods that exclude informal economies. Such is the case found by Boakye et al., who later surveyed eleven towns in Ghana resulting in observations of steady pricing of pangolin derivatives, hierarchy within supply chains, a seven-day hunting cycle, and other characteristics of rich pangolin hunting culture. If most studies are done in international urban areas, most pangolin seizures will be found in international urban areas, which is the case in the CITES reports returning high rates in the United States and China and low rates in Central Africa. However, if domestic informal markets are included in these international reports, we may find that much higher rates of pangolin derivatives are found in African markets than in international ones.

Bias against informal supply chains is nothing new to the international political economy. Aryeetey explains that “By current estimates it is not unusual for the informal economy to account for over half of gross domestic product and employment in developing countries, including Sub-Saharan Africa,” indicating the size and significance of overlooked market transactions. Because informal economies are not traditionally measured by Western statistics methods, the unmined data they possess goes under-analyzed within the international economies, and such is likely the case in pangolin trade. Since export industries most frequently follow regulation of the formal economy, we see an emphasis on pangolin derivatives examined here through seizure or observation, as is the case with CITES data, and an underemphasis on domestic trade in Sub-Saharan Africa. This is particularly alarming for policymakers using data to inform development and conservation decisions and given the emphasis on international legislation (CITES) and organizations (IUCN), we can see this is likely the case. In order to accurately portray informal pangolin trade, “practices should be based on local conditions and not solely on international standardization” (Jerven 2013, 106), so to properly examine illegal pangolin trade within Sub-Saharan Africa we must focus more on the existing informal economies than recently birthed international ones.

Despite many reports examining pangolin conservation efforts linking their endangered status to Chinese demand, we must also consider that Africa’s economies have been exponentially growing over the past two decades. This growth creates expansion of urban areas and population booms, meaning that cultures who traditionally rely on pangolin as bushmeat have more mouths to feed, and that as jobs formed by developing economies require more skill there will be groups left out in need of alternate sources of income. Because of examined bias against informal markets in Sub-Saharan Africa, international economic statistics underestimate domestic factors in examining pangolin exploitation and overestimate the role of Asian economies in their threatened species status. This renders policies like CITES and organizations like IUCN relatively ineffective, because as population grows in Africa, they will be only tackling international pangolin markets while domestic ones grow at more rapid rates. While both international and domestic efforts are needed in endangered species conservation, African pangolin is at a particular disadvantage due to the lack of data on regional informal economic data (Jerven 2013), so it is imperative that more emphasis is placed on domestic law enforcement, protection agencies, citizen awareness, hunting regulation, and rural market transactions as both a means of preventing pangolin harvest and as a data collection method. If these measures are taken, we will likely see more effective results in conserving African pangolin populations through a decrease in market observations and an increase in wild population surveys. However, in this analysis it is important to acknowledge the role of China in increasing African population through development policies, the impact of habitat destruction on pangolin endangerment, and potential local disregard or resistance towards pangolin protection policies on the grounds of cultural preservation. Future studies will examine these effects in more detail.

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