Further Protections for the World’s Most Trafficked Mammal, Pangolins
Also known as scaly anteaters, pangolins received increased protections under Convention on the International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) at its 17th meeting of the Conference of Parties at Johannesburg, South Africa. On September 28, CITES member nations voted to transfer pangolins from Appendix II to Appendix I of the treaty, therefore increasing protections. Once the highest international protections possible are firmly decided upon, CITES will shut down commercial sales of pangolins and their parts across borders.
“This decision will help give pangolins a fighting chance,” says Sue Lieberman, vice president of international policy for the Wildlife Conservation Society, a nonprofit based in New York City.
Pangolins are nocturnal, ant-and-termite-eating mammals whose bodies are covered with overlapping scales made of keratin. There are eight subspecies within the species, four in Asia and four in Africa. All eight species are threatened by international trafficking, primarily for their scales for traditional Asian medicine and luxury food in East Africa. The demand is greatest in Vietnam and China, where new wealth has led to demand for the parts of rare, exotic animals. In Africa, hunting for local use as bushmeat and for traditional medicine is also occurring at unsustainable rates.
Between 2013 and 2016, approximately 18,500 kg (almost 41,000 lbs) of pangolin scales were seized from illegal shipments originating from African countries, representing between 5,100 – 39,000 individual pangolins depending on the actual species harvested.
There is no global estimate of the pangolin population, but IUCN lists all eight subspecies as endangered or threatened. Pangolins are also affected by habitat loss and a low reproductive rate. So coupled with the effects of illegal smuggling, “the present scale of trade could drive this species to extinction,” described one Indian representative.
Though CITES have restricted international trade since 1995 and many of nations have laws protecting them, almost a million pangolins have been trafficked during the past decade, according to wildlife experts. This may be due to the ineffective enforcement of these domestic laws as the vast majority of pangolin trade violates CITES and laws of many nations.
But now, Scott Robertson of the Wildlife Conservation Society, believes that the added protections will help pangolins by allowing demand countries to enact harsher laws and simplifying efforts for law enforcement. “It’s very clear now,” he says, referring to the ban. “It’s black and white.”
Individual countries are supposed to carry out the protections mandated by Cites. But Laos, cited by Traffic, a wildlife trade monitoring group, as a hub for illegal pangolin trade, and other nations have not passed the necessary laws.
“That’s the next step — encouraging countries without legislation to get that in place,” Chris Shepherd, the Southeast Asia regional director of Traffic, said. “This is a huge step in the right direction to combating the illegal trade of pangolins, but international cooperation is required to make it effective.”
The Appendix I listings were adopted with the following votes: for the Chinese and Sunda pangolin proposal, 114 support, 1 against, and 5 abstentions. Only Indonesia argued that banning international trade in Sundra and Chinese pangolin would only increase demand. The proposals for the Indian, Philippine and African pangolins were agreed upon without the need for a vote and without opposition.
Now, the proposals will face a final decision when the countries vote again next week, but given the initial near unanimity on this first round, it’s likely they’ll sail through.
With a New Report, World Pressure to End Tiger Farms Have Increased
One of the many issues that came up during CITES’ meeting in South Africa, was tiger farms that supply the black market with skins, bones, and other parts. There, China and other Asian countries face pressure to shut them down.
China, in particular, came under pressure for allowing the intensive breeding and sale of tiger parts, violating the 2007 international decision agreeing that countries with tiger farms to scale back operations to minimum needed to support conservation. It is estimated that the country holds 5,000 to 6,000 tigers in “farms”, facilities that breed the animals for tourist entertainment as well as for luxury and medicinal markets after they’re slaughtered.
Tiger farms, also existing in Thailand, Vietnam, and Laos, have long been suspected of feeding the international black market for illegal wildlife products. In total, there is an estimate of 7,000 to 8,000 captive tigers on farms across Asia, compared to the 4,000 estimate in the wild.
“Trade in parts and derivatives of captive-bred tigers perpetuates the desirability of tiger products, in turn stimulating poaching of wild tigers,” says Debbie Banks, of the Environmental Investigation Agency, a London-based NGO.
To combat tiger farms, the new proposal will require all countries with captive Asian big cats to report to the CITES Secretariat, the treaty’s governing body, on how they are ensuring that big cats and their parts don’t enter the illegal trade. This will begin a process which could lead to certain countries being required to take specific steps to bring problem facilities in line.
Though this new requirement can only help, but Kanitha Krishnasamy of TRAFFIC still says that “There’s no good news for tigers.” Co-author of a new report that found that seizures of tiger products are continuing to increase, Krishnasamy also found that about 30% of all seized products come from captive-bred tigers, up from 2% in 2000. “That’s really a reflection of the level of threat that these facilities pose in terms of tigers leaking into the illegal trade.”
The report also highlighted a rise in the seizures of live tigers, particularly in Thailand and Vietnam, with 17 animals seized from 2000-2004 and 186 in the last four years. It is widely believed that the increase in live seizures is directly related to the rise in tiger farms.
Despite the 2007 decision, numerous reports, including this recent one, showed that both the domestic and international trade in tiger and other Asian big cat parts were intensifying, not scaling back.
“These facilities have been in existence for a very long time,” TRAFFIC’s Krishnasamy argues. “If there was any indication that they led to tigers in the wild not being persecuted, we would have seen it by now. We haven’t. There’s no evidence to show that poaching of tigers in the wild has gone down.”
Steven Broad, executive director of TRAFFIC, chimes in: “This analysis [of the report] provides clear evidence that illegal trade in tigers, their parts and products, persists as an important conservation concern. Despite repeated government commitments to close down tiger farms in Asia, such facilities are flourishing and playing an increasing role in fuelling illegal trade.”
Last week on the first day of the convention, Laos announced that it will discuss how to phase out its tiger farms. Thailand has also cracked down on the infamous Tiger Temple, pledging to investigate all tiger breeding facilities.
“Laos and Thailand have announced steps in the right direction but they need to act now and other countries should swiftly follow the same path marked ‘close all tiger farms’,” says Ginette Helmy, WWF Head of CITES Delegation.
The First Bee Species Federally Protected by the U.S.
On September 30, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) announced that seven species of Hawaiian yellow-faced bees are now federally protected under the Endangered Species Act. This listing followed years of study by state government officials, independent researchers, and the conservation group Xerces Society, whose goal is to protect nature’s pollinators and invertebrates.
In the early 1900s, yellow-faced bees were the most abundant insect species throughout the Hawaiian islands. However, invasive species, habitat loss, and climate change have decimated the bee populations and are now one of the state’s least observed pollinators.
The only two known populations of H. anthracinus (the Hawaiian yellow-faced bee) remain on the island of Oahu, with a few small populations scattered across several other islands, according to recent surveys.
“What we saw was really alarming—the bees were doing a lot worse than we thought,” says Cynthia King, an entomologist with Hawaii’s Division of Forestry and Wildlife.
In 2010, the state government stepped up efforts to learn more about the bees. At the same time, Xerces Society submitted a petition to federally protect the species. Xerces executive director Scott Black argued that these species is a “necessary part” of the White House’s strategy to protect pollinators. “We should protect the rarest of the rare.”
But the yellow-faced bees have been under the radar prior to this recent attention. Around 1995, when entomologist Karl Magnacca, now postdoctoral researcher at the University of Hawaii, noticed the bees buzzing in his house on the Big Island. When he tried to look up the insects in scientific literature, he came up virtually empty.
“That was surprising, since bees in general are an important group. [Yellow-faced bees] have been ignored since the 1920s.”
From this experience, Magnacca decided to do his Ph.D on the bees, discovering ten new species and recording their populations along the way. He worked with Xerces on much of the initial research.
Though the yellow-faced bees can be found elsewhere in the world, Sarina Jepson, director of endangered species and aquatic programs for Xerces Society, says that these particular species are native only to Hawaii. As keystone species, they pollinate plant species indigenous to the islands, including some of Hawaii’s endangered native plant species. While other bees and pollinators could pollinate, many are dependent on the yellow-faced bees for pollination and could become extinct without them.
According to Magnacca, the bees “tend to favor the more dominant trees and shrubs we have here [in Hawaii]. People tend to focus on the rare plants, and those are important, that’s a big part of the diversity. But the other side is maintaining the common ones as common. [The bees] help maintain the structure of the whole forest.”
Gregory Koob, conservation and restoration team manager for the FWS in Honolulu, also argues that the bees are critical for maintaining the health of the ecosystems across the islands; that if the bees were removed, the plants they pollinate “would likely not survive”. Though there is no designated critical habitat attached to the listing, the new protection will allow authorities to implement recovery programs, access funding, and limit their harm from outside sources.
“Those plants are not only food and nesting habitat for the bees, but they also provide habitat for other animals,” comments Koob. “It’s the web of life.”
King is optimistic that the bees’ new endangered status will strengthen plans to help the insects.
“A lot of people think of Hawaii as a lost cause because we have so many invasive species,” she says, but “we’re really well positioned right now to make headway for the bee.”
Friday’s listing finalized the protection of ten animal species in Hawaii, with the seven bees join band-rumped storm-petrel, the orange-black Hawaiian damselfly and the anchialine pool shrimp. It also added 39 species of native Hawaiian plant species.