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How the Inspiration for a Pokémon Became the Most Trafficked Mammal on Earth

The host of the most recent episode of <i>Black Market: Dispatches</i> dives deeper into the illicit pangolin trade.

Melanie Gouby

Over this past summer, customs officials at the Hong Kong harbor made a grim discovery. Hidden inside a shipping container were 4.4 tons of pangolin scales—the remains of between 1,100 and 6,600 African pangolins that were poached in Cameroon and shipped for consumption to China, where the scales are used as a cure in traditional medicine.

The pangolin is a harmless anteater who wobbles around the dense equatorial forests of Southeast Asia and sub-Saharan Africa; it inspired the creation of the popular Pokémon Sandshrew, but the pangolin's funky appearance might result in its tragic demise, too. In the last decade, more than one million pangolin were taken from the wild, according to the United Nations Environment Program; this figure makes the pangolin the most trafficked mammal on the planet. A staggering number—but even with trafficking on the rise, information about the illegal pangolin trade remains hard to come by, since elephants and rhinos are the focus of most conservation efforts.

In the last few years, however, a pattern has emerged: As Asian pangolin populations have been driven to the brink of extinction, traffickers are now turning to the African pangolin population to satisfy the Asian market, where prices for pangolin scales and meat have soared.

Bushmeat has traditionally been part of the local diet in Cameroon, and pangolins are considered a delicacy. They can often be bought alive at roadside stalls and markets, or served in restaurants. In Djoum, a small town on the edge of the Dja Faunal Reserve, the local economy is entirely based on the bushmeat trade. Markets and restaurants sell all kind of game—from pangolin to elephant meat—which is consumed locally or exported to bigger cities. Since 1994, hunting for pangolins without a permit is illegal; for small hunters, however, the cost of obtaining the document is prohibitive, so with few other alternatives, many have decided to stay outside the law.

While there exists a rationale for people to keep hunting for subsistence, globalization has brought the illegal wildlife trade to a higher level in places like Djoum. "One day, I was about to burn the scales of a pangolin I had caught, but a kid told me not to," Jean, a poacher, told me while investigating the people behind the pangolin poaching for an episode of Black Market: Dispatches. "He told me there was someone in town who was buying pangolin scales. That's how I first started selling them." Later, I met a poaching middleman who wore denim dungarees and spoke with a thick, slow voice; he explained that he'd been approached a few years back by a Cameroonian woman working with a Chinese patron.

Pangolins have become a prized good in China and Vietnam, where the scales used in traditional Chinese medicine can easily be imported in containers. Pangolin prices on the black market have increased from around $300 to over $1,000 per kilo in just five years; at times, they can fetch nearly $3,000 per kilo. "The amount of illicit profit that can be made from this trade helps explain its alarming growth and is deeply concerning for the future of these species," Inger Andersen, director of the International Union for the Conservation of Nature, said in a statement after 4.4 tons of pangolin scales from Cameroon were seized in Hong Kong this past June. The seizure represented the biggest of its kind in the last five years.

China became Cameroon's primary investment partner after the latter country launched an investment appeal in 2010, investing more than $400 million per year. China's also controlled a large part of the country's infrastructure projects; at the end of 2015, China's investment portfolio in Cameroon was an estimated 1,850 billion CFA francs (around $3 billion).

The Chinese presence can be felt throughout the country, but the investment has been associated with an unsustainable rise in the exploitation of natural resources. "Clearly, the Chinese have been largely responsible for the massive surge in pangolin trafficking," said Francis Tarla Nchembi, coordinator of the Progress on Pangonlins MENTOR program. The program's run by a trans-disciplinary team based in Cameroon, and supported by both the US Fish and Wildlife Services and the Zoological Society of London. "There was a time when scales were thrown away by poachers—now they're being stocked, and we see scales shipments seized in Hong Kong and know that only Chinese boats are leaving the harbor in Douala."

"But it seems unlikely the 4.4 tons of scales seized in Hong Kong came from just the additions of small poachers' hunts," Nchembi adds. "Some people in Cameroon are getting their hands dirty."

In Djoum, the Cameroonian poacher Jean explained the poacher hierarchy: Subsistence poachers like him mostly trade in bushmeat and live animals, while the grands chasseurs ("great hunters") exclusively deal with ivory. Similarly, two kind of traffickers buy from the poachers: those who specialize in ivory and rhino horns, and traffickers who deal in the live animal trade. Their primary skill is to have a large network of contacts in villages where they can collect and export monkeys, birds, and snakes.

"When the pangolin scales trade shifted to Africa, the live animal traffickers began dealing the scales because they had the local networks to gather them from the small poachers in villages," explained Ofir Drori, director of wildlife law enforcement network EAGLE (Eco Activists for Governance and Law Enforcement). "But dealing back to traffickers in China has exposed them to new people, allowing them to build the necessary networks to move up and start trafficking ivory. The pangolin scales trade is bridging the gap between these two groups and reinforcing traffickers' capacities."

Increasingly, Jean says the grand chasseurs have been dabbling in pangolin hunting as well. "We're seeing more seizures containing a mix of pangolin scales and ivory, which didn't happen before," said Chris Shepherd, Southeast Asia Regional Director at wildlife trade–monitoring organization TRAFFIC. "It used to be different sets of people involved in these trades."

Just as the illegal ivory trade has been grabbing headlines, the ongoing spike in pangolin scales trafficking from Africa serves as a good reminder that communities are interdependent—and that ignoring one species, whether in the wild or on the black market, could lead to the collapse of entire ecosystems. Considering the alarmingly high figures associated with pangolin trafficking, it might finally be time to focus on combating the illicit trade with the same passion that fuels efforts to stop other, more high-profile animal trafficking markets.

Follow Melanie Gouby on Twitter.

You can catch Black Market: Dispatches on VICELAND. Find out how to watch here.