The pangolin trade explained: situation in Malaysia

By Elroi Yee, on May 2, 2019

What is Malaysia’s role in the illicit trade of pangolins?

Malaysia is home to the Sunda pangolin, one of eight existing species of pangolins in the world. It is also known to be a source and transit country in the global pangolin trade, including those from Africa. Seizure records show that it is in the top 10 countries with the highest incidences of international trafficking of pangolins and their parts. Along with neighbouring Indonesia, Malaysia has been identified as one of the priority countries of origin and recipients for large shipments of pangolins, either live or dead, or of pangolin scales and other body parts.

How big is the estimated pangolin population? How many have been seized in recent years?

There are no available population statistics on pangolins in Malaysia. However, it is widely accepted that the population is in steep decline due to the high number of pangolins being caught by wildlife smugglers.

In February 2019, authorities seized almost 30 tonnes of living, frozen and processed pangolins in a single raid on a warehouse in Kota Kinabalu, Sabah.

A decade ago, authorities confiscated logbooks from a wildlife syndicate in Sabah that showed that they poached and traded an estimated 22,000 pangolins between 2007 and 2009. 

Smaller seizures of between 20 to 100 pangolins are common, often in areas near the Thai-Malaysia border.

Anecdotal evidence from communities living near forest areas also indicates that pangolins are increasingly rare.

What is the major use of pangolins?

Anecdotal evidence suggests that, historically, some sections of the local populace hunt pangolins for consumption and to turn its scales into medicine or ornaments. There is a small local demand for exotic meats like pangolin, but it is not thought to contribute significantly to poaching.

In more recent times, pangolins have been harvested in large quantities in Malaysia to feed international demand for its meat and scales, largely for medicinal purposes.

Are there any laws that ban farming, poaching or selling of pangolins? What are the penalties?

There are three separate wildlife laws covering the regions of Peninsular Malaysia, Sabah, and Sarawak.

The Wildlife Conservation Act 2010 covers Peninsular Malaysia and lists the pangolin as a “totally protected” species. Anyone found hunting or keeping the animal is liable to fines of up to 100,000 Malaysian ringgit (US$ 24,200), three years in prison, or both. There are stiffer penalties if the animal is a female or a juvenile.

The Wildlife Conservation (Amendment) Enactment 2016 covers the region of Sabah, and also lists the pangolin as “totally protected”. Possession and hunting of pangolins is punishable by fines between 50,000 and 250,000 Malaysian ringgit (between US$ 12,100 and US$ 60,500), and one to five years in prison.

By comparison, the Wild Life Protection Ordinance 1998 that covers Sarawak is much softer on pangolin smuggling. It lists pangolins as “protected”. Hunting, killing, trading or being in possession of a pangolin is only prohibited without a licence and is punishable by a fine of 10,000 Malaysian ringgit (US$ 2,420) and one year in prison.

Have there been any actual prosecutions? Have there been any court cases?

There have been a number of prosecutions, especially in Peninsular Malaysia and Sabah, with fines of up to 125,000 Malaysian ringgit (US$ 30,200) meted out. However, anecdotal evidence from enforcement authorities indicates that most of the perpetrators are able to pay their fines or post bail in cash, leaving them free to return to their wildlife trade. Prison sentences have been handed out before, but they are usually short.

Who are the people involved in the trade of pangolins? Who do they sell the pangolins to and for how much?

Pangolins are usually collected by local communities living near forests or plantations. However, the trade is mostly driven by the high prices offered by smuggling syndicates. Middlemen for these syndicates pay local poachers between 50 to 300 Malaysian ringgit per kg (US$ 12.10 to US$ 72.60 per kg).

These prices are in turn fuelled by high demand from China and Vietnam. Authorities suspect that Malaysian syndicates are connected with syndicates in Indonesia, Thailand, and Vietnam, facilitating the trade from one country to the next, until it reaches China or Vietnam.

How can you help?

Avoid buying, selling or consuming pangolins and its derivatives.

If you come across evidence of pangolin poaching or smuggling, you can call the MYCAT Wildlife Crime Hotline at +60 193 564 194. The hotline is operated by a coalition of conservation NGOs and supported by the Malaysian Wildlife Department (PERHILITAN).

Elroi Yee

Since 2015, Elroi has been working at R.AGE, producing multimedia investigative journalism, packaged for a social med…