Illegal pangolin trade in Myanmar is flourishing, according to a recent study published in Global Ecology and Conservation. Myanmar serves both as a source of pangolins, and as a major transit hub for smuggled pangolins, their meat and scales to meet China’s demands, researchers have found.
Pangolins are one of the most hunted mammals in the world. In the past decade, more than one million pangolins have been traded, according to the U.S. FWS. All four Asian species of pangolins are on the verge of extinction.
Myanmar is home to three of the four Asian species: the Sunda pangolin (Manis javanica), the Chinese pangolin (M. pentadactyla), and the Indian pangolin (M. crassicaudata). Myanmar also shares a long, often porous, boundary with China. Yet, not much is known about illegal pangolin trade in the country, the authors write.
To investigate the role of Myanmar in the pangolin trade, researchers from the U.K. and China surveyed markets of Mong La, a town in eastern Myanmar located on Burma-China border. Mong La, ruled by a warlord and totally outside the control of the Burmese government, is infamous for its casinos, gambling halls, prostitution, drug trafficking and open wildlife trade.
The researchers visited Mong La on four occasions between 2006 and 2015, and surveyed the wildlife morning market in the center of town, specialized wildlife shops selling trophies and skins, wild meat restaurants and casinos.
During this period, the team documented 42 bags of pangolin scales, 32 whole skins, 16 fetuses or pangolin parts in wine, and 27 whole pangolins openly for sale. “Our observations suggest Mong La has emerged as a significant hub of the pangolin trade,” the authors write.
The team also scanned through the CITES trade database, pangolin seizure data from the Myanmar Forestry Department, and TRAFFIC’s database for pangolin seizures, and found that pangolins are regularly seized in Myanmar. Between 2010 and 2015, officials seized a total of 29 pangolin seizures from Myanmar and 23 from neighboring countries like Thailand, India, China. These seizures amount to 4339 kilograms (~9,566 pounds) of scales and 518 whole pangolins, for a combined total of 7,109 pangolins, the authors write. The retail value of this trade in Myanmar, according to the researchers, amounts to $3.09 million.
“This value will go up considerably once the pangolins have crossed over into China, where prices of pangolins and their parts have risen considerably over the last decade,” the authors add.
During the period 2010 to 2015, several large pangolin seizures linked to Myanmar were reported in neighboring countries, suggesting that “Myanmar is a more important country in the smuggling and illegal trade in pangolins than seizure data from Myanmar itself suggests,” the researchers write.
The team also observed that the amount of pangolins and pangolin scales for sale appeared to be increasing over time. “The fact that pangolins appear to be available daily is of high concern,” they add.
Pangolin trade is illegal in Myanmar. Yet, both the market surveys and seizure data implicate Myanmar “as a source of pangolins or as a transit point for pangolins sourced in other countries, in the period 2010–2014,” the authors write. The study suggests that pangolin trade in the country could be flourishing.
To curb the cross border trade in pangolins, efforts from the Chinese border authorities are essential, the researchers note, especially since there is lack of regulation along much of the border from the Myanmar side.
“Ongoing demand and unopposed wildlife crime networks are pushing all four of Asia’s pangolins towards the brink of extinction,” co-author Chris R. Shepherd, Regional Director of TRAFFIC in Southeast Asia, said in a statement. “Collaboration between governments in Asia is needed to reduce cross-border trade significantly, to prevent these amazing species from being lost forever.”
- Nijman V, Zhang MX, Shepherd CR (2016) Pangolin trade in the Mong La wildlife market and the role of Myanmar in the smuggling of pangolins into China. Global Ecology and Conservation. doi:10.1016/j.gecco.2015.12.003