Pangolins: While some Malawians champion breeding, experts demur

Conservation scientists say captive breeding would be unfeasible and do more harm than good to wild pangolin populations
<p>A ground pangolin foraging for ants. It is the only pangolin species native to Malawi. (Image: Alamy)</p>

A ground pangolin foraging for ants. It is the only pangolin species native to Malawi. (Image: Alamy)

When police in Malawi’s capital Lilongwe arrested three men for possessing a live pangolin last October, the trio joined a long list of more than 200 caught for the same offence since 2019. There has been a surge in pangolin-related crimes in the past five years, Peter Kalaya, a spokesperson for Malawi’s police service, tells China Dialogue.

The foreign demand for pangolins is such that some commentators in Malawi have been calling for the country to legalise captive breeding. However, experts point to multiple obstacles: Malawi is party to a convention that has banned international trade in pangolins; breeding them is extremely difficult; and people could use breeding operations to launder wild-caught animals.

Malawi is home to the ground pangolin, the only pangolin species found in Southern Africa. It can grow up to a metre long and is categorised as “vulnerable” by the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s Red List.

As of October last year, the Ministry of Tourism, Wildlife and Culture had recorded 154 pangolins rescued from trafficking in Malawi.

“Some are injured, fed with food they do not take naturally, dehydrated, transported in containers with poor aeration,” says Joseph Nkosi, the ministry’s public relations officer. “[Some] end up dying while undergoing rehabilitation.”

Strict protections not enough

In Malawi, a 2020 wildlife law accords pangolins maximum protection. People caught in possession of a live animal, or by-products, face prison sentences of up to 30 years. So far, the most severe punishment received by a perpetrator is 12 years, according to the Nyasa Times.

The country has signed up to CITES, a convention that regulates the international trade of certain species of wild animals and plants. All eight pangolin species are listed under CITES Appendix 1, which indicates they are threatened with extinction and their international commercial trade is banned.

Despite this, trafficking remains rampant, with many animals smuggled through what Nkosi calls “the country’s porous borders”. The traffickers sometimes bribe border authorities to turn a blind eye, he adds.

From an ecological point of view, pangolins help maintain the health of their ecosystems. They contribute to soil health and nutrient cycling as they dig for food, and regulate insect populations that may otherwise harm forests.

“There is inadequate awareness among law-enforcement officers and members of the community on the importance of pangolins,” Nkosi explains. Inadequate financial resources also hamper efforts, he adds.

Demand drives poaching

Both the police and the Ministry of Tourism, Wildlife and Culture point to high demand for pangolins in Asia as the main driver of illegal trade in them. Global estimates suggest pangolin numbers have declined steeply, although their typically dense forest habitats make accurate estimates impossible. In parts of Asia, their meat is considered a delicacy and their scales are used in traditional medicine. Pangolin is also widely traded in meat markets in West and Central Africa.

Kalaya says the police publicise every arrest made for pangolin possession, but this does not seem to deter similar crimes.

In Malawi, pangolin-related arrests more than tripled between 2019 and 2020, Brighton Kumchedwa, director of the Department of National Parks and Wildlife (DNPW), told Malawi 24.

It remains unclear where Malawi’s trafficked pangolins end up. The police and the DNPW can only speculate that they primarily reach China and Vietnam. The Congo Basin Institute, a sustainable development advocacy group, has tried to analyse the geographically unique genetic markers of trafficked pangolins to shed light on this murky supply chain.

Nkosi says that, within Malawi, local traffickers mostly take pangolins to the main cities of Blantyre, Lilongwe, Zomba and Mzuzu, as well as to border towns.

“So far, Mozambicans, Zimbabweans, the Chinese, Pakistanis and the Rwandese are among the foreigners that have been arrested locally for trafficking in these endangered species,” he says.

Many traffickers themselves are unclear about intended buyers: “Some people daringly poach the animals even when they have no known market for them,” Kalaya says. Many believe they can “get rich quickly” through the trade, he adds.

Calls for pangolin farming

Against the backdrop of this illegal trade, some Malawian commentators have urged the government to legalise pangolin breeding.

Last November, Paul Sezzie, a well-known poet, used Facebook to advocate for captive breeding, suggesting it would help solve the country’s foreign exchange crisis. His views echo similar comments made by other Malawians beneath online articles about pangolin trafficking.

John Kazembe, a former ecology and wildlife management lecturer at the Lilongwe University of Agriculture and Natural Resources, supports pangolin farming. He mentions that Malawi is one of the world’s poorest countries, and argues that breeding would “help diversify” its economy. He adds that “rearing pangolins for trade would promote conservation and protection of those in the wild.”

Commercial export of pangolins and their parts contradicts the CITES to which Malawi is a party
Ceres Kam, Environmental Investigation Agency

However, successful captive breeding and regulated trade is extremely unlikely according to research by conservation scientists including Daniel Challender. Their 2019 study explained that captive pangolin breeding has proven extremely difficult on a commercial scale. Commercial international trade is also illegal under CITES, it added.

Patricio Ndadzela, who oversees Malawi and Zambia for the International Fund for Animal Welfare, corroborates these views: “It would be difficult and very expensive to rear [pangolins] as the species found in Malawi and Mozambique feed only on termites and ants. To feed them, each pangolin needs about 300g of food per day. So, how do you grow enough termites and ants to feed them? Would that make business sense?”

Even if commercial pangolin farming was feasible, it is unclear whether such an industry would help to protect wild pangolins.

According to Ceres Kam, a wildlife campaigner for the Environmental Investigation Agency in the UK, any legal market can be used as a cover for the corresponding black market. Research into how captive-breeding facilities source their seed specimens points to the illegal capture and trade of wild pangolins, Kam adds.

“This coupled with the low survival rate of pangolins in captivity means such facilities would add pressure onto wild pangolin populations,” Kam tells China Dialogue. “Moreover, commercial import and export of pangolins and their parts and derivatives contradicts the CITES to which Malawi is a party.”

A further concern, Kam adds, is that pangolins are known to carry a wide range of pathogens, including but not limited to coronaviruses; breeding the animals in high concentrations could risk spreading and mutating diseases.

The idea of cashing in on the pangolin trade may be doing the rounds in Malawi, but the evidence suggests that such an initiative would face legal, practical and economic barriers. It may also do harm than good to this vulnerable species.