The pangolin trade explained: Situation in Taiwan
What is Taiwan’s role in the illicit trade?
Taiwan used to legally export pangolins. From the 1950s to the 1970s, the island exported annually about 60,000 pieces of pangolin leather. The pangolin leather processing industry in Taiwan ended around the 1980s, due to the decrease number of pangolins and the rise of labor cost. However, the use of pangolins as food, medicine and specimen was not yet penalized.
In 1989, the government established the Wildlife Conservation Act, banning commercial harvesting and export of pangolins. Since then, domestic consumption was reduced and only few smuggling cases took place.
Taiwan’s current role in smuggling is not as important as in other Asian countries. There are fears, however, that as Hong Kong and other countries crack down on pangolin trafficking more heavily, Taiwan may be used as an illegal transit point in the global trafficking of pangolins.
How big is the estimated pangolin population? How many have been seized in recent years?
The Taiwanese pangolin (Manis pentadactyla pentadactyla) is a subspecies of the Chinese pangolin. They are are widely distributed around the country. They prefer to live in hilly areas at an altitude of 200 to 800 meters.
And despite its proximity to China and Vietnam, the largest consumers of pangolins, Taiwan is a haven of wild pangolins. The wild pangolin population has begun to increase in past decades since the government established the Wildlife Conservation Act in 1989, banned hunting and the exportation of pangolins.
However, there hasn’t been any formal survey of the total number of pangolins across Taiwan, so the exact population number is unknown. Researchers from the National Pingtung University of Science and Technology counted the number of a small pangolin group in the Sazasa tribe, in an indigenous Bunun tribe located in Taitung County, eastern Taiwan in 2010-11 and discovered there were 12.8 pangolins per 100 hectares — quite a high density. In fact, the island currently boasts what could be the world’s highest concentration of the most-trafficked mammal on the planet.
In 2018, Kaohsiung customs officials intercepted 4,000 descaled and disemboweled Sunda pangolin bodies in a container that originated from Malaysia. In 2015, the Coast Guard Administration seized five Taiwan pangolins that were about to be smuggled to China, along with Asian yellow pond turtles and yellow-margined box turtles.
What is the primary use of pangolins in Taiwan?
Pangolins were once traded for export or for the domestic market in Taiwan. From the 1950s to 1970s, they were hunted to fulfill overseas demand for their scales. The animals’ body parts were also used in traditional Chinese medicine due to its supposed tonic effects. The illegal smuggling of Taiwanese pangolins is quite rare nowadays.
Before the Wildlife Conservation Act in 1989, pangolin meat was often served in game-meat restaurants. Such consumption is no longer common, but it still exists. For example, it was reported last year that pangolin meat was listed on the menu of the famous restaurant Butterfly Dining in Taipei.
Are there any laws that ban farming, poaching or selling pangolins? What are the penalties?
Pangolins are listed as a critically endangered animal in Taiwan. According to Article 35 of the Wildlife Conservation Act, the sale and purchase of wild animals, and their products are subject to punishment by imprisonment for up to five years and a fine of NT$300,000 to NT$1.5 million (US$ 9,640 to US$ 48,200).
Harassment, ill-treatment, hunting, slaughtering, trading, displaying, possessing, importing, exporting or breeding of protected animals can be sentenced to imprisonment for more than six months and less than five years, and a fine of NT$200,000 to NT$1 million (US$ 6430) to (US$ 32,100)
However, the Wildlife Conservation Act only penalizes people who buy, sell and possess live animals. There is no penalty for those who hold and eat dead protected animals. Therefore, the owner of the Butterfly Dining restaurant in Taipei claimed that the pangolin was given by a friend and he did not make the purchase himself — and eventually, he was not prosecuted.
Have there been any actual prosecutions? Have there been any court cases?
Most prosecuted cases in Taiwan are mostly related to domestic trade, and lately, there haven’t been many smuggling prosecutions. In the case of the Sunda pangolins seized by Kaohsiung customs officials last year, the authorities were unable to find the owner.
In 2017, police officers arrested a man who had a pangolin in his car in Miaoli, central Taiwan. The man argued in court that he was going to set the animal free, but the judge considered it unreasonable and sentenced him to seven months in jail.
Who are the people involved in the trade of pangolins? Who do they sell the pangolins to and for how much?
There are not many pangolin-smuggling cases in Taiwan. Both the smuggling cases of pangolins in 2015 and 2018 mentioned above are still under investigation.
How can you help?
One can report the poaching, buying, selling or harassing of pangolins to the Forestry Bureau, under Taiwan’s Executive Yuan’s Council of Agriculture.
No. 2, Section 1, Hangzhou South Road, Taipei City
Report can also be made to the local police stations and the agriculture offices in every county and city government.