Wildlife and animal rights

New TRAFFIC report says there is an ‘industrial-scale’ trade in pangolins in Indonesia

A new report by the monitoring network TRAFFIC documents the “industrial-scale” trade in pangolins in Indonesia and states that up to 10,000 of the trafficked animals are being seized by the Indonesian authorities every year.

Pangolins are one of the most trafficked mammals in the world. More than one million of them are reported to have been illegally hunted and killed in the past decade.

In the new report, entitled “Scaly Nexus: Mapping Indonesian pangolin seizures”, which was released today (Thursday), TRAFFIC states that an equivalent of 35,632 pangolins were seized in 111 enforcement cases over the six-year period from 2010 to 2015.

The volume of pangolins and parts seized annually in Indonesia varied greatly throughout the period studied, TRAFFIC said. It ranged from the equivalent of 2,436 pangolins per year to 10,857.

“This is a reminder that Indonesia’s wildlife is being drained on an industrial scale to feed the global illegal trade,” said the acting regional director for TRAFFIC in Southeast Asia, and a co-author of the report, Kanitha Krishnasamy.

“While the relatively high number of seizures and arrests speaks to the Indonesian government’s commitment in tackling the problem, it also highlights the relentless poaching pressure in one of the most biodiverse countries in the world.”

All the pangolins seized in Indonesia are Sunda pangolins (the Manis javanica species). The species is listed by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) as critically endangered. It is the only species of pangolin found in Indonesia.

TRAFFIC points out that, as pangolin populations in China – and in neighbouring countries – have dwindled over the years, harvesting for the trade has moved southwards across the Asian continent, with Malaysia and Indonesia currently being among the most important regional suppliers in the international trade chain.

All trade in wild-caught Sunda pangolins, also known as Malayan or Javan pangolins, is prohibited by law in Indonesia.

Sunda pangolins are also found in Brunei Darussalam, Cambodia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, Singapore, Thailand, and Vietnam, although the IUCN says that, in Myanmar, the species has apparently been eradicated widely in lowland areas because of human agricultural expansion and hunting.

The Sunda pangolin is critically endangered, the IUCN says, because of high levels of hunting and poaching for its meat and scales, “which is primarily driven by exports to China”.

Local consumption and utilisation also take place across the species’ range, the IUCN adds.

The Chinese pangolin (Manis pentadactyla) is also listed as critically endangered.

Pangolin scales are used to treat a huge number of ailments ranging from tumours, asthma, stomach ache, flu, and joint problems to leprosy, skin problems, and diabetes.

Pangolin parts are even used to make wine, and the scales are made into jewellery and are used as magic charms.

According to the IUCN, there have been suspected declines in Sunda pangolin populations of less than or equal to 80 percent over the past 21 years (with generation length¹ estimated at seven years), and there are projected continuing declines of greater than or equal to 80 percent over the next 21 years, with the intensity of hunting having moved into the southern parts of the species’ range.

TRAFFIC says statistics show that Indonesia has been functioning mainly as a source country for pangolins. Seizures within the country accounted for 83 percent of the 111 cases studied.

The authorities identified or arrested a minimum of 127 suspects linked to those cases.

Last week, TRAFFIC and the IUCN released a separate study about global pangolin seizures between 2010 and 2015. It placed Indonesia among the top ten countries involved in the international illegal pangolin trade.

Massive seizures have continued, TRAFFIC says, and there have been at least 21 in Indonesia since 2016, including a 2.5-tonne seizure of pangolin meat in October 2016.


In one of the largest seizures of pangolins on record, more than 4,000 defrosting pangolins were discovered hidden in a shipping container in Indonesia in April 2015. There were 97 live pangolins in the haul, along with 77 kilos of scales. Photos by Paul Hilton for the Wildlife Conservation Society.



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In the report released last week, entitled “The Global Trafficking of: A comprehensive summary of seizures and trafficking routes from 2010–2015”, TRAFFIC states that an average of twenty tonnes of pangolins and their parts have been trafficked internationally every year, with smugglers using 27 new global trade routes annually.

The report was released in the wake of the world’s largest ever pangolin seizure, when China announced the seizure of 11.9 tonnes of scales from a ship in Shenzen in November.

The analysis of cross-border pangolin seizures shows that a combined minimum of 120 tonnes of whole pangolins, parts, and scales were confiscated by law enforcement agencies from 2010 to 2015.

It was discovered that 159 international trade routes were used by traffickers during the six-year period studied.

By comparison, a previous analysis of CITES trade data found 218 such routes being used over a 38-year period from 1977–2014.

The global trafficking study, which was conducted by TRAFFIC and researchers at the University of Adelaide, shows that traffickers quickly shift from commonly used routes after a short period and create new ones.

China was shown to be the most common destination in terms of large-quantity shipments of pangolin scales while whole pangolins were mostly traded within Asia.

Minor shipments of pangolin parts went to the United States, but the quantities entering the US were not comparable to the massive shipments trafficked through Africa and Asia.

A Sunda pangolin baby clings to its mother’s tail.  Photo © Thai Van Nguyen / Save Vietnam’s Wildlife.

Risk of extinction

TRAFFIC programme officer, and also a co-author of the latest report, Lalita Gomez, says the Sunda pangolin is considered to be facing an extremely high risk of extinction in the wild. “It simply cannot take this level of persecution,” she said.

According to the most recent TRAFFIC study, the most pangolin seizures in Indonesia have occurred on the island of Sumatra, which serves as a key link in the illegal pangolin trade between Indonesia, Malaysia, and Singapore.

The city of Medan in North Sumatra appears to be a main site for collection of pangolins and pangolin parts before export.

China and Vietnam are destination countries, TRAFFIC says, whereas Malaysia is the main transit country in the trafficking of pangolins from Indonesia.

Kalimantan is also identified as a source and trade hotspot and Java as a centre for trade.

TRAFFIC says that, while fewer seizure records were found for Kalimantan than in other areas, the trade route between West Kalimantan and China has been thought to be of key importance in the international pangolin trade

“Pangolins are collected throughout the Bornean Island and smuggled via Jakarta or Sarawak, often mixed in with large shipments of legal products such as crops of various kinds.

“The remoteness of most areas in Borneo, as well as the extensive shared border between Kalimantan and Sarawak, provides advantages to smugglers while inhibiting effective monitoring and control by relevant authorities.”

There is only one record that implicates Indonesia as a potential transit country. It relates to a shipment of pangolin scales originating from Cameroon, which was seized in Jakarta in January 2015.

Considering the history of large-scale pangolin seizures, and the pangolin’s average seven-year generation span, its populations are likely to be in decline as a result of the trade, the authors of the latest TRAFFIC reports say.

The authors say that, to combat pangolin trafficking, there needs to be better monitoring and investigation of the pangolin trade, stronger multi-agency co-operation, and awareness of the trade needs to be raised among prosecutors and the judiciary.

Photo © Kanitha Krishnasamy.

TRAFFIC says that the inherent secretive nature of illegal trade means seizure statistics are unlikely to represent the full magnitude or scale of the trade, and may reflect a variance in enforcement levels.

Of the 35,632 pangolins seized between 2010 and 2015, only 2,884 of the seizures involved live animals (the others either involved dead animals and/or animal parts).

“Given their low rate of survival under captive conditions, it is unlikely all these survived captivity or were able to be released back into the wild,” the TRAFFIC report states.

At the recent Asia for Animals conference in the Nepali capital Kathmandu, Thai Van Nguyen (pictured below), who founded Save Vietnam’s Wildlife, gave a presentation about how to reduce the demand for pangolins.

Van Nguyen told delegates that pangolins have no predator in the wild. “The problem is us,” he said.

He talked about the increase in the number of pangolin confiscations, not only throughout Asia, but also in Africa.

Last month, the 69th CITES Standing Committee concluded that Parties should treat all pangolin specimens and stockpiles as Appendix I specimens, including those obtained when the species were listed in Appendix II. This means that no stockpiled pangolin parts can be legally traded internationally.



Malaysian customs officers found 337 kilograms of pangolin scales in two batches when they scanned boxes arriving from Sabah and Sarawak at the Kuala Lumpur International Airport’s mail and courier centre in November this year. The scales were destined for an address in Hong Kong.


  1. Generation length (GL) is defined as the average age of parents of the current cohort, reflecting the turnover rate of breeding individuals in a population.