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Society & Culture

China and Africa's Vanishing Mammals: PART TWO

Apr 30 , 2019
  • Robert I. Rotberg

    Founding Director of Program on Intrastate Conflict, Harvard Kennedy School

China and Vietnam are the world’s largest active consumers of elephant tusks and rhinoceros horn for prestige carvings and for medicinal purposes, as discussed in Part One of this series of articles about the enormous poaching of African animals.  There is also a Chinese and Vietnamese market for lion and leopard claws, for jewelry and more medicinal concoctions, as well as the meat and scales of pangolin. In all three cases, demand is driving those species toward extinction. We need official bans in China and Vietnam on trafficking, and a serious re-education of consumers in order to slow the disappearance of iconic African mammals.

Lions are being poached in a serious manner for the first time. They are being killed so that their faces and paws can be hacked off and shipped, along with rhino horn and elephant tusks to Asia.  Mozambique, South Africa, Zimbabwe, Tanzania, and Uganda have all reported depredations of this kind, and the wanton practice may also have spread to Kenya and Botswana. As it happens, it is far easier to poach lions (despite their feared reputations) than elephants or rhinoceroses. Lions scavenge, so poachers need only snare an antelope, poison the carcass, and wait.  There are more poachers than game rangers, too. In one park in Mozambique there are at least a dozen separate lion poaching syndicates.

Once poisoned, the paws and face are easy to cut off the dead lion and are worth about $2,000 to $4,000 to the poachers. In Asia, the claws and teeth become pendants and other forms of jewelry. On a regular Chinese online purchasing site, anyone can order a lion tooth pendant for $126. Sometimes lion bones are also taken for use in traditional African religious ceremonies and magic or, in Asia, as substitutes for increasingly rare tiger bones. The lion bones can be used to make (fake) tiger bone wine; it treats various ailments and is said to give drinkers “the strength of a tiger.” But bones are harder to carry and smuggle than faces and claws, Transported to China, Vietnam, and Malaysia together with tusks and horns, these lion parts may just be another way of making money now that there are fewer rhinos, and stronger protections are in place.

Leopards can also be hunted for their claws and teeth, and for the same ultimate use. As elusive and often singular animals, they might be thought to be spared poaching and habitat loss, but leopards can also be tempted by poisoned carcasses and threatened by villagers who blame leopards for the loss of sheep or goats. The IUCN classifies African leopards as “vulnerable.”

Chinese consumers also lust after the meat, scales, and other body parts of the four pangolin species that are found in Africa, yet rarely glimpsed by tourists or African farmers. Three of these four species of scaly anteaters live in the deep forests of Cameroon, the Central African Republic, Equatorial Guinea, Gabon, and the two Congos. More than 300 pangolins a day are killed.

There may be even more than 600,000 pangolins ridding Africa of ants annually, and thus nothing to worry about. But we do not really know how many pangolins exist and, at the rapid rate that pangolin skins and scales are being seized at African ports, pangolins may soon be gone. They are among the most heavily trafficked wild animals in the world. Moreover, it is likely that customs and other port officials are blocking the export of but a tiny fraction of all pangolins trafficked out of Africa, en route to Asia. 

Pangolin meat (there are critically endangered Asian species, also) is considered a delicacy in southern China. Pangolin scales are prized as an ingredient in traditional Chinese medicines. When WildAid surveyed Chinese consumers, 70 percent believed that pangolin meat and other products could cure rheumatism and skin diseases if mixed into a wine or taken as a powder. Pangolin penises possess aphrodisiacal properties, or so many Asians believe.  All three products are easy to find in shops in Hong Kong, as well as in major mainland Chinese cities. Nearly 4 grams of pangolin scales was worth $38 in Hong Kong markets in mid-2019. Sometimes merchants grind the scales into powder, the better to avoid detection and the better to blend into medicinal soups.

In early 2019, Hong Kong officials found 800 pounds of pangolin scales secreted along with $1 million worth of purloined mobile telephones and digital cameras. The scales had a street value of about $300,000. A few months before, the same sleuths intercepted nine tons of scales, the biggest haul ever recorded, on its way from Nigeria to Vietnam. In mid-2019, an even larger shipment was confiscated. Singaporean authorities discovered containers holding fourteen tons of pangolin scales that also came from Nigeria and were being transshipped to Vietnam.

Between 2013 and 2017, inspectors in Hong Kong – the gateway to southern China – confiscated forty-three tons of pangolin carcasses and scales, representing probably tens of thousands of animals. They had arrived primarily from Cameroon and Nigeria.  The UN Office of Drugs and crime reported that the Hong Kong seizures represented almost 50 percent of the pangolin products seized globally in just three years earlier in this decade. The amounts of pangolin collected by the authorities went on to double between 2017 and 2018. The traffic in pangolins is clearly massive, and profitable. And, in terms of the usual concerns for illegal ivory and rhino horn smuggling, the pangolin commerce crawls under most radar.

Chinese and Vietnamese authorities know that the massive trade of poached animals continues. They ought to be able to stop it, or at least slow the loss of African lions, leopards, and pangolin.

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