How Nepal became a pangolin smuggling route to meet growing China demand

By Sonia Awale, on July 7, 2019

Seizure of pangolin scales and meat are on the rise across Asia, indicating increasing demand for the body parts of this endangered mammal found in Nepal, other parts of Asia and Africa.

Last year, two Chinese nationals flying transiting Kathmandu on their way from Nigeria to China were seized at the airport with 162kg of scales from at least 15 dead pangolins.

Sudip Giri of the Central Investigation Bureau (CIB) says the seizures are just the tip of the iceberg, with much of the trafficking going undetected.

“Pangolin smuggling is increasing at an alarming rate, but most of the culprits we have arrested are those out to make a quick buck, travelling on bikes trying to find buyers in the city, they are not the criminal masterminds and wholesalers,” Giri explains.

Nepal is one of the three land routes known for smuggling South Asian pangolins to feed the Chinese market. Photo: Sujan Bajracharya/RSS

Although Nepal is on the traditional route for wildlife trafficking from India to China, bulk seizures have occurred at trans-shipment points like Singapore and Hong Kong. In April, more than 14 tons of pangolin scales bound for Vietnam was seized – the biggest haul of its kind. Some 36,000 pangolins would have had to be killed for the consignment worth USD38.7 million.

The seizure came just five days after another container with 12.9 tons of pangolin scales was discovered in a Singapore port. Two separate shipments of five and four tons of pangolins from Nigeria have been seized in Hanoi in the last two months.

Nepal is home to two species of pangolins: the Chinese and Indian varieties. The Chinese pangolin is on the IUCN’s critically endangered list and the Indian one is on the endangered list. Both species are in Nepal’s protected list and the killing, poaching, transporting, selling or buying of the scaly anteater is punishable with Rs1 million fine and/or up to 15 years in jail.

However, Nepal, north-east India and the Karakoram Highway in Pakistan are the three land routes known for smuggling South Asian pangolins to feed the Chinese market where the scales can fetch up to USD3,000 per kg and live anteaters at USD8,000.

International trafficking routes of pangolins. Infographic: Nepali Times

Border points into China in Darchula, Humla, Bajhang, Sankhuwasabha, Sindupalchok, Gorkha, Dhading, Rasuwa, Kavre, Bajura, Surkhet and Taplejung are used for smuggling not just pangolin, but tiger parts, rhino horns, rosewood and other contraband items as well.

Officials admit that the lack of proper equipment to identify wildlife contraband, corruption and lax monitoring at remote checkpoints means that many consignments slip across the border undetected.

While the smuggling nexus has been more or less controlled with greater conservation efforts and stricter regulations, conservationists fear that the Himalayan route is now being revived for pangolins, the world’s most smuggled mammal.

“With increasing connectivity, and our border with a high-demand country for pangolins like China, we have to be vigilant,” says Tulshi Laxmi Suwal of Nepal’s Small Mammal Conservation and Research Centre, who is pursuing her PhD on pangolins at the National Pingtung University in Taiwan.

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The reopening of the Tatopani-Kodari border point after the 2015 earthquake, the increasing use of the Rasuwa-Kerung road and the prospect of a new trans-Himalaya railway link could turn Nepal into even more of a smugglers’ den.

“Nepal is already a signatory of China’s Belt and Road Initiative which could increase market access and trafficking of wildlife,” says Kumar Paudel of Greenhood Nepal, who adds that pangolins from Africa, India and Bangladesh are already being intercepted in Nepal on their way to China.

With increasing connectivity, and our border with a high-demand country for pangolins like China, we have to be vigilant.

More than 100,000 wild pangolins are poached from Africa, Southeast Asia and South Asia every year. Most are destined for China where scales of the mammals are used in traditional medicine, and its meat considered a delicacy.

Taiwan is a rare success story that offers hope. The island used to have high demand for pangolins just like the mainland, but an awareness campaign to reduce domestic demand and strict control on smuggling, allowed Taiwan’s own pangolin population to rebound. If Taiwan could do it, conservationists say, China can too.

“Poaching and illegal trade of pangolins is not a big issue anymore in Taiwan, but we cannot be complacent. We need to continue sharing knowledge and I have found social media to be quite powerful,” says Nick Ching-Min Sun of National Pingtung University.

His colleague, Tulshi Laxmi Suwal from Nepal adds: “We can all learn from Taiwan, how governments can be more serious and work with local communities and conservationists to spread awareness to reduce demand and give local people alternative incomes to reduce supply.”

This article is reposted with permission from Nepali Times.

Sonia Awale

Sonia is a digital producer and environment correspondent for the Nepali Times. Her reportage has covered air polluti…