World Pangolins day: Let us protect endangered, threatened and vulnerable African Pangolins in Uganda

Today is the 9th Annual world Pangolins day being celebrated worldwide. This is a special day and an opportunity for pangolin conservation activists to join together in raising awareness about the threats to Pangolins conservation. Pangolins populations are rapidly declining in Africa and Asia.

Courtesy of BBC Wild Life

The demand for pangolin comes mostly from China, where pangolin scales are unfortunately believed to be a cure-all of sorts and pangolin flesh is considered a delicacy. In Vietnam, pangolins are frequently offered at restaurants catering to wealthy patrons who want to eat rare and endangered wildlife. There is no evidence to support claims regarding the medicinal properties of pangolin scales or any other part of the pangolin.

Hong Kong SAR customs seizure of Pangolin scales, June 2014, photo by Alex Hofford/WildAid

The Albertine Watch is dedicating this day to collect donations with the major goal of scaling pangolins conservation efforts in Uganda by establishing Pangolins reserve near Murchison Falls National Park. Our goal is to raise awareness and funding to eliminate demand, trafficking, and poaching of Pangolins at risk of extinction. There is limited knowledge of Pangolins among the Ugandan populations. Pangolins, nocturnal animals that feast on ants are highly sought after for their supposed, but unproven, medicinal benefits, and as a culinary delicacy. They are said to be the most trafficked wild animal in the world.

In December 2019, the Xinhua news agency reported the seizure of over 10 tonnes of pangolin scales in the eastern Chinese city of Wenzhou, Zhejiang Province. This was the largest seizure of pangolin scales by Chinese customs officials up to that point in 2019. The pangolins in question were reported to be African tree pangolins.

Pangolin trafficking topped wildlife crimes in 2019 in Malawi, according to the Xinhua news agency. Local media reports, it said, indicate that the first successful convictions for pangolin trafficking in the sub-Saharan country took place in November 2017.

Pangolins are in high demand for Chinese traditional medicine in southern China and Vietnam because their scales are believed to have medicinal properties. Their meat is also considered a delicacy. 100,000 are estimated to be trafficked a year to China and Vietnam, amounting to over one million over the past decade. This makes it the most trafficked animal in the world. This, coupled with deforestation, has led to a large decrease in the numbers of pangolins.

Pangolins live in both Africa and Asia ©David Brossard /Courtesy of Wild Aid

Domestic trade probably poses the largest threat to African pangolins at present, although the illegal international trade is rapidly emerging as a major threat. All four African pangolin species are widely used in Traditional African Medicines, known locally as Muthi. Some cultures believe that pangolins are the greatest gift that can be bestowed on a person of authority and in the past, many pangolins were presented to tribal chiefs and ministers as a sign of respect. This tradition is still practiced in some parts of Africa. There are also a number of traditional beliefs regarding pangolins. Some cultures believe that seeing a pangolin during the day indicates that drought is imminent, and the only way to ward off the drought is to sacrifice the pangolin next to a river. Other cultures use pangolin fat to ward off evil spirits while still others believe that carrying a pangolin scale or a vial of pangolin blood will protect you from danger. Some cultures use pangolin scales as part of their traditional dress.

In all the communities neighboring Murchison Falls National Park in Uganda, pangolins are predominantly used as a source of food. Many villagers in areas of Karuma, Got Apwoyo, Purongo, Wii Ulwiyo, Anaka, Pabidi, Ngwedu, Pakwach, Alwi, Wadelai, Panyigoro, Akela, Boro, and Jakok view pangolins as the source of food in forms of bushmeat. They hunt Pangolins for food, traditional medicines and also for trading purposes with Chinese nationals employed to supervise the different road constructions and electricity distribution projects as well as the ongoing Oil and gas infrastructures development projects in the adjacent areas of Murchison Falls National Park. Among the Acholi and Jonam tribes of Nwoya and Pakwach districts, Pangolin meat is considered a special gift to the elders and meats are preserved for special guests, the pangolins are roasted over a fire and sometimes boiled in water to remove the scales, which are discarded, and the meat preserved by salting.

The increased collaboration between Uganda and China is resulting in the all African pangolin species found in Uganda being increasingly targeted by the many Chinese investors contracted to build roads in Uganda. Chinese investors and companies are trading in Pangolins to supply the insatiable Asian demand. Most of these animals and derivatives are destined for China and Vietnam, although significant seizures have also been made in various European countries. China and Vietnam are believed to be the main end-user countries with the European countries mainly acting as conduits, although some of the pangolins imported into Europe as bush meat are destined for expatriate communities living in these countries. The illegal international trade is likely to become the most significant threat to African pangolin species in the near future. This together with the challenges facing the Uganda Wild Life Authority (UWA) law enforcement in Uganda mandated to protect wildlife will increase the decline rates of Pangolins species in Uganda. For example, the Uganda Wild Life Authority and Financial Intelligent Authority of Uganda have failed to prosecute Chinese nationals at Syno Hydro Power Limited in Karuma who are alleged to be trading in Pangolins. Although the Uganda Wild Life Authority is aware of the involvement of Karuma based Chinese nationals at Syno Hydro Power Limited in illegal trade in Pangolins and other wildlife, no legal actions have been taken by the Uganda Wild Life Authority.

In 2018 Police of Pakwach district with the help of the local community have arrested the local council one (LCI) chairperson of Wanglei A village in Pakwach town Council in possession of two live Pangolin at his home. Mr. Michael Okumu was arrested with John Odoki, a resident of Purongo village in Nwoya district who is alleged to be a potential buyer of the Pangolins.

In 2017 UWA arrested Malian national with expired travel documents, the group was intercepted with six tons of pangolin scales fuel for deportation to Tanzania where the shipment was detained, the multi-nation operation was led by UWA together with partners like the Lusaka Agreement Task Force with support from Interpol and Freeland.

In the same year, two residents of Nwoya districts, Francis Okello and Consulanta Lamwaka, were arrested by in a crackdown that was mounted by officials from the Natural Resource Conservation Network (NRCN), an NGO that deals in the conservation of wildlife in the country.

In 2016, 4 civilians and a police officer were arrested in Kitgum district for poaching pangolins from Kidepo Valley National Park. They were arrested with two Pangolins species bundled in polyethylene material.

In 2016 Police in Nwoya District have arrested a man and his wife for allegedly being in illegal possession of two pangolins and 25 kilograms of pangolin scales estimated to cost Shs251m in the black market. The couple from Kochgoma Sub-county in Nwoya District were arrested in an operation mounted by officials from Natural Resource Conservation Network and police.

In 2015, Uganda Wildlife Authority (UWA) seized two tons of pangolin scales discovered in boxes at the Entebbe International Airport, a key transit center for the illegal wildlife trade in Central Africa. Poaching of wildlife animals such as pangolin has ascended highly across Africa over the past four years and this is fueled by the rising demand in Asia for products coveted as traditional medicine and or as status symbols.

Nwoya, Pakwach, Buliisa, Kiryandongo, and Masindi districts are the hotpots areas of wildlife illegal poaching and trading in wildlife. In October 2019 two residents of Nwoya  Francis Ojok, of Koch village, Goma sub-county in Nwoya district were arrested for being in possession of Ivory. In the same month On October 7th, police in Amuru arrested five suspects after they were found in possession of 400kgs of ivory.

Also in March 2019, 3 poachers namely, Muzamil Hamuza, 31, Ali Magidu, 32 and Govile Nuru 44 were arrested in Elugu town council in Amuru district with a piece of ivory weighing 30 Kilograms. Similarly, Officers at the Elegu Uganda – South Sudan border crossing have in January 2019 discovered and impounded over 2,000 pieces of ivory and Pangolin scales in three containers concealed in logs of wood and wax under transit from the Democratic Republic of Congo to Asia. On melting the wax from one of the containers, 762 pieces of Ivory (Elephant tusks) weighing 3,299 kilograms valued at approximately $ 2,352,187 were recovered. 423.7 kilograms of Pangolin scales valued at approximately US$ 1,271,100 were discovered.

These are only the visible examples of cases of illegal wildlife trafficking and trade in wildlife and there are good bats to suspect the invisible illegal wildlife trafficking and trade in wildlife activities taking place in and within Murchison Falls National Parks are more pronounced.

More than 300 residents living around Murchison Falls National Game Park have been arrested and others shot dead by the police and Uganda Wild Life Authority for engaging in illegal wildlife trafficking, poaching, and trade in wildlife.

 Most of the villages in Nwoya, Pakwach, Amuru, and Buliisa districts are located in the proximity of an active historical elephant and other wildlife species migration corridor between Murchison Falls National Park in Uganda and South Sudan. Most of the wildlife products seized in transit in the region originate from neighboring countries in the great lakes region such as the Central African Republic, Democratic Republic of Congo and South Sudan where different rebel groups such as the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) engage in poaching. Uganda is used as a conduit to markets in the Middle East and Asia.

In Uganda, pangolins are mostly found in the northern region specifically in areas of Nwoya, Pakwach, Amuru, Kiryandongo and some parts of Buliisa district since they are rare species of animals in the country. Most indigenous communities who live in these areas where Pangolins are found are poor. Their poverty level is contributed by factors including, 1986 conflicts when President Museveni took over power and a rebel outfit, Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) led by Joseph Kony went into action soon after. Locals were forced to live in squalid Internally Displaced Person Camps until 2006 when peace negotiations between the Governments and LRA saw guns fall silent and Kony flee to the Central African Republic where he remains holed up. The war impoverished millions to the extent that they hardly afforded daily bread and could only survive on hand-outs from Non-Governmental Organisations (NGOs). Many young and school-going children dropped out of school. As guns fell silent and people returned to normal activity to try and recover, looking for sustainability became the biggest burden. Besides farming and small businesses, many citizens found themselves having to think beyond conventional means and engage in other illicit activities. Poaching and trade in the illegal game are one such. Including pangolin.

Action Plans for Pangolins conservation

Habitats protection

The loss to Pangolins habitat is a huge threat to Pangolins in Murchison Falls National Park and the neighboring habitats outside Government protected areas. There are increasing numbers of people encroaching on protected land and the lands that were reserved for cultural heritage preservation. In addition to this, improved road networks and related infrastructure due to the Oil and gas extractive and exploration activities taking place in the Albertine region causing degradation of key habitats for endangered and Vulnerable Pangolins and other wild and tree species in the Albertine region of Uganda. For example, the constructions of Karuma Hydro Power dam project and the Oil road being built inside Murchison Falls National park does not only lead to degradation of Pangolins habitats, but it also brought more Chinese nationals in the area to access wildlife species like elephants and pangolins for Ivory and pangolin scales

The opening of many large scale agribusiness farms and monoculture farming in Nwoya, Pakwach and Kiryandongo districts an area which was mostly previously inaccessible are now easily accessible, with a transport network nearby to transport any harvested resources, with the result that this area is now over utilized exposing species to extinction. Oil exploration activities, road constructions and agricultural expansions in the region affect Pangolins and their key habitats. Our goal is to conserve key habitats for Pangolins and other endangered, threatened and vulnerable wildlife species.

Our target is protecting ecological integrity for all the four species of African Pangolins found in the Albertine region of Uganda, namely; White-bellied pangolin (Phataginus tricuspis) ( Endgered), Giant pangolin (Smutsia gigantea)- Endangered, Black-bellied pangolin (Phataginus tetradactyla)- Vulnerable, and the Temminck’s pangolin (Smutsia temminckii)- Vukenrable.

The key to global pangolin conservation is awareness: both public awareness and creating awareness among law enforcement officials. We are collecting donations for active media campaigns to raise public awareness of the Pangolin crisis in the community in and within Murchison Falls National Park. To actively collaborate with the Uganda Wild Life Authority and other law enforcement officials in the Albertine region of Uganda to raise awareness about the conservation challenges of pangolins and the protection of their habitat. We believe that a combination of habitat protection for Pangolins together with collaboration with Ugandan Wild Life Authority and other law enforcement officers will yield far-reaching benefits for Pangolins conservation and protection to avert the increase rate of poaching of Pangolins for Bush meats, traditional medicines as well as for illegal trade by Chinse nationals building hydropower dam in Karuma, and those building the Oil road across the Albertine region of Uganda.

Please donate today. Your donation will be used for an awareness campaign and for land purchase For Pangolins reserve and community protected areas in Got Apwoyo, Purongo, Pakwach and Buliisa. These land parcels are strategically positioned as a wildlife corridors connecting East Madi Wild Life reserve, Karuma Game reserve, Luli kayonga Forest, Buguguungu Wild Life reserve, Ajai and many others to Murchison Falls National Parks as a unique corridors for Pangolins and other wildlife to roam freely without threats from poachers, road buildings, pesticides, bush fire, road accidents among others.

Please email your interest at executive@albertinewatchdog.org

Wold Pangolins Day campaign poster: Courtesy of World Pangolinday.org

Cover photo: From World Animal protection undercover research in 2019. Pangolins are typically suffocated from their burrows with smoke, stuffed into sacks, beaten unconscious and boiled alive.

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