New Tools are Critical to Combat Wildlife Crime

If you ask the average bystander to name the most trafficked mammal in the world, you’ll likely hear them answer “elephant” or “rhino.” Many people have never even heard of a pangolin, as they are not widely known outside of Africa and Asia. Yet, these small, scale-covered anteaters are trafficked more than any other mammals, due to soaring demand for their meat and the use of their scales in traditional medicines. Despite being included on the Convention of International Trade in Endangered Species of Wildlife Fauna and Flora (CITES) endangered species list, the rate of trafficked pangolins seems to be increasing. It is imperative that law enforcement is equipped with the proper tools to support their capacity to help save this unique, special creature.

Sal Amato, Law Enforcement Specialist for the USAID Wildlife Asia Activity, recognized the need for an easy-to-use field guide that law enforcement agents could reference when encountering confiscated pangolins or pangolin parts. The guide would enable quick species identification, thus avoiding delays in determining where the animals originated (as traffickers tend to ship in multiple ports) and helping to identify who the traffickers or syndicates may be. In combination with the project’s strategy in building law enforcement capacity and connectivity between agencies and counterparts at a regional and transcontinental level, the guide drastically reduces the amount of time spent tracking the illegal products, thereby enabling the faster initiation of investigations that can improve port security, and potentially capture and prosecute the actors involved.

The results have been remarkable. The Pangolin Species Identification Guide was originally published in 2017. USAID Wildlife Asia has since translated the guide into 10 languages—and counting. It has been shared with law enforcement in the activity’s focal countries of Cambodia, China, Laos, Thailand, and Vietnam, as well as other Asian and African countries involved in the illicit pangolin trade. More than 1,000 guides have been sent to China alone, a country that is one of the largest consumers of trafficked pangolins and pangolin parts. The guide is even available as an application for smartphone users, making it easy for law enforcement officers to access its critical information whenever and wherever it’s needed.

As part of its distribution, USAID Wildlife Asia consultant Rhishja Cote, a pangolin expert, shared the guide while attending both the CITES Animals Committee meeting in Geneva on July 16-21, 2018, and the CITES Standing Committee Meeting in Sochi on October 1-5, 2018. As a result of the guide’s exposure and wide distribution in southeast Asia, it has been co-branded with the Vietnam Customs Authority and the IUCN Specials Survival Commission, as well as being translated in languages for distribution in Africa. This added dissemination exceeded the original mandate of the activity and demonstrates what a valuable tool the project has created.

Most recently, CITES recognized and commended the Pangolin Guide, making it available on the CITES Virtual College. CITES serves as the international mainframe for legal trade in flora and fauna. However, it is their endangered species list that supports the protection of animals. While they do not enforce, CITES functions as a platform to endorse legislation and law enforcement work based on trafficking or population stats. CITES recognized that sharing relevant tools could help the implementation of CITES Resolutions, and thus invited governments, agencies, other organizations to share such tools with the Secretariat. CITES recognized the Pangolin Guide as one of these important tools, and USAID Wildlife Asia has been invited to the next CITES Conference of Parties (CoP-18).

Only through these kinds of efforts can we realistically expect to combat wildlife crime and preserve endangered species. We must build on successes, collaborate across borders, and put innovative tools like the Pangolin Guide to work. Though nocturnal and mostly reclusive, pangolins can be found hanging out in trees or carrying their babies on their backs. They’re unique, and while not conventionally cute, have a way of growing on you endearingly. More than 100,000 pangolins are poached from the wild each year, but by sharing tools like this one, we can work together to save this endangered species.