With pangolins becoming more difficult for poachers to find, the asking price for the scaly burrowing mammals has gone up from R9 000 in 2009 to R400 000 on the black market. This was the evidence of police Warrant Officer Wessels Jacobus Wessels in the Pietermaritzburg Magistrate’s Court this week. He was testifying as to why Isaac Mutero, a 42-year-old Zimbabwean national, should be denied bail.Mutero is charged with being in possession of a protected species, an African ground pangolin.Wessels explained to the court why the offence was so serious. He said pangolins have scales and are sought after by people in Eastern countries. The pangolin allegedly found on Mutero was the first recovered in KZN. The pangolin was allegedly found concealed in a backpack at a local mall.“In 2017 there were only 17 cases of smuggling of pangolin reported throughout SA. On January 16, the day Mutero was arrested, he was the sixth person to be arrested for smuggling pangolin into SA. All six cases were from Zimbabwe,” said Wessels.Wessels said the arrests indicate the men may belong to a syndicate. He added that the pangolin is even more sought after than the black rhino or any sort of rhino horn.He added that according to Professor Ray Jansen of the African Pangolin Working Group, the pangolin Mutero was found with had been kept in captivity for between 10 to 14 days. “A pangolin can’t be kept in captivity because it follows a specialised diet of ants and termites. This pangolin was taken to the pangolin working group hospital in Midrand where it was treated for severe dehydration and malnutrition. It died on January 24, after its organs collapsed due to malnutrition and dehydration,” said Wessels.He said in his opinion Mutero will not stand trial if released. The maximum sentence for this type of offence is a fine of R10 million, 10 years’ imprisonment or both.Wessels explained how Mutero’s arrest came about. He said that on January 9, information had led his team to apply for a warrant to make use of a police agent. Contact between the agent and Mutero was established.Mutero wanted to sell him an African pangolin and he wanted R85 000 for the animal. Ten days later, Mutero met the agent at the Brookside Mall. He had an African pangolin in a backpack, all rolled up.The moment he was arrested, his first words were “I am sorry”. Wessels added that Mutero said he was from Zimbabwe and said he believes he will go back there immediately when released because he “experienced problems” in SA. He was searched and two cellphones were found on him. On one, there were three photos of an African ground pangolin. There was also a photo of a man, presumed to be Mutero, and three dogs in a donga, busy digging up something.“This is believed to be the way the pangolin was captured.” Wessels added that Mutero’s work permit had expired in December. The bail application was adjourned to March 8. Mutero and his employer from Umzinto are expected to testify.