“This is very beautiful, free delivery included,” an unidentified seller tells a buyer, who is in fact an undercover investigator from the Netherlands-based Wildlife Justice Commission (WJC). In a secretly filmed video in Vietnam, the two were looking at a bunch of pangolin scales.
The scales, each as large as a human palm, are laid on a table at an unidentified location.
Reading: Vietnam ivory pangolin scales
The video, part of an investigation in 2016-19 by WJC, takes a look at the transnational trail pangolin scales taken through 27 countries and territories, with Vietnam having a prominent role.
Last year Vietnam seized the largest volume of scales, surpassing Nigeria, the main export hub.
“Our investigations in Vietnam indicate that criminals that were previously involved in the ivory trade are now also involved in the trafficking of pangolin scales,” Sarah Stoner, director of intelligence at WJC, which seeks to disrupt and help dismantle illegal wildlife trade, and lead author of the analysis, said.
WJC has been working closely with Vietnamese authorities since 2016 to track wildlife trade, leading to many seizures of ivory and pangolin scales.
Traffickers are currently finding it difficult to sell ivory, which Stoner said could be a contributing factor to the increased trafficking in pangolin scales.
Since ivory is a more expensive item than scales, large volumes of the latter must be traded to compensate, according to the analysis.
Between 2017 and 2019 around 16 tonnes of pangolin scales were offered for sale in Vietnam to undercover WJC investigators, confirming large-scale trafficking was occurring.
Graphics by Wildlife Justice Commission.
According to WJC data, in 2018 and 2019, there were shipments of more than 500 kilograms each seized at Noi Bai International Airport in Hanoi, and five sea ports in Ho Chi Minh City, Da Nang, Hai Phong and Ba Ria-Vung Tau.
Four such shipments were seized in Hai Phong in northern Vietnam, and one each at the other ports.
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China, which is known for having huge demand for the endangered animal, used to be the main destination country until 2018, when Vietnam surpassed it.
Transit and destination
Known seizure data shows Vietnam is both a transit point and destination country for the scales, though more the latter.
In 2018 more than three tonnes from Africa, headed elsewhere, were seized.
Besides, seven consignments each in 2018 and 2019 weighing a total of 69.6 tonnes arrived for sale in the country.
The country is part of the three most prolific smuggling routes that involve China, the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), Hong Kong, Nigeria, and Singapore. They and Vietnam were linked to 94 percent of all contraband seized during the 2016-19 period.
A direct trafficking route between Nigeria to Vietnam was identified in May 2018, suggesting traffickers have managed to strengthen their relationship or the emergence of new trafficking networks in the African country.
The trafficking of scales from Nigeria to Vietnam and Hong Kong seems to be increasing, with Singapore emerging as a transit hub.
The populations of all four Asian pangolin species have plummeted in the last decade driven by a global wildlife black market which has been supplying the booming Chinese demand for jewelry, artwork, traditional medicine, and exotic food.
With local pangolin supply running out, wildlife traffickers are now turning to African species.
Scales trafficked to Vietnam were concealed under nuts, plastic scrap, tar, timber, and frozen meat, according to seizure data in 2018 and 2019.
Despite being legally protected and categorized as endangered in Vietnam, the shy, tiny creature, which resembles a scaly anteater, is still hunted for the alleged medicinal properties of its scales.
Poached and skinned
Two tons of elephant tusks and pangolin scales found in three containers shipped from Nigeria to Hai Phong City in northern Vietnam in December 2019. Photo by VnExpress.
Medicinal markets selling drugs containing pangolin scales can be found in Vietnam among other countries, according to the WJC. It also found carved pangolin scales being sold as jewelry and accessories in Vietnam.
Traders also sell the meat after to high-end restaurants. Since the animal is rare and are caught in the wild, it serves an important social function for buyers to flaunt their status, a 2015 study published by British researchers on Elviser, a conservation science journal, said.
At a restaurant in HCMC, the study said, pangolins were brought in alive and killed for consumption in front of customers. One incident involved three middle-aged men who paid $700 for a two-kilogram pangolin.
It is illegal to hunt, kill, possess, capture, transport, or trade pangolins in Vietnam, and they carry penalties of up to 15 years in prison and fines up to VND15 billion ($645,000).
There are eight species of pangolin, all in Asia or Africa and all at risk of extinction as a result of habitat loss and illegal trade.
Significant trafficking occurs though international trade in all eight species is banned under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species.
Stoner at WJC thinks the drawback with Vietnamese law enforcement is that it does not permit the use of special investigative techniques such as using undercover operatives, carrying out test purchase operations and controlled deliveries, all of which are necessary strategies needed to tackle organized crime.
“These limitations greatly impede the effectiveness of law enforcement interventions of transnational wildlife trafficking within Vietnam.
“We urge all governments and key stakeholders to address wildlife crime as what it really is: a very lucrative and serious organized crime.”
Wildlife trafficking is the fourth largest global illegal trade after narcotics, counterfeiting of products and currency and human trafficking, and is worth an estimated $19 billion per year, according to the World Wild Fund.
Researchers at South China Agricultural University said earlier this month that the pangolin could be an intermediary host for the new coronavirus that has killed more than 1,700 people in China.
This hypothes is still to be confirmed and Stoner urges caution “as this may potentially cause an adverse effect on a species already under enormous pressure as the target of high-level wildlife traffickers.”