How the 14 tons of seized Pangolin scales illuminates a need for change in CITES

In early April 2019, fourteen (14) tons of pangolin scales were seized by custom authorities in a single smuggling operation bust. [Full article can be found here.] This seizure of pangolin scales, worth an estimated $38.7 million, is an example of how the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Flora and Fauna (CITES) protects wild endangered species populations by restricting trade. CITES regulates trade of  specimens -“any animal or plant, or any recognizable part or derivative thereof” that are listed in Appendix I by requiring import documentations and export permits. CITES further requires “scientific authority to determine that the export is not detrimental to the survival of that species.” CITES Art. 3(a). Pangolin scales fall into the Appendix 1 category as of 2016, when it was determined that all eight species of pangolins are endangered. [See IUCN article here.]

However, while CITES may prohibit the import and export of pangolin scales, it does not directly prohibit the poaching and killing of these animals. Therefore, while it may be illegal to ship pangolin scales without proper documentation, the shipment itself may be too far removed from the killing of the animal to protect the pangolins’ lives. As the recent article pointed out, while poaching is illegal, poachers and hunters often cannot resist the exorbitant pay-offs that pangolins offer. “Scales from a single pangolin can provide a life-changing sum of money for people living in some of the poorest communities.” [See CNN article here.] However, it is not until the scales are smuggled into (often) Asian shipping hubs that they are seized. By this time, the pangolin or scales may have changed hands many times from the original hunters or poachers. Preventing the deaths of these animals at this stage is especially urgent given that several species of pangolin are designated as “critically endangered,” just a step above extinction.

In order to better protect endangered species, it may not be enough to only establish export and import regulations. Often, endangered species and goods made from them become more valued because of their scarcity. By imposing restrictions, CITES may have also made the killing and poaching of the pangolin more lucrative for killers, while exposing only the transporters to criminal prosecution. Therefore, countries should devote more resources to the protection of their endangered species at the killing and poaching stage, rather than relying primarily on the ex post prohibitions the result from the permitting requirement at the international shipment level.

Cynthia Yuan

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