#ShockWildlifeTruths: Malaysian customs seize 8.8 tons of pangolin scales worth R311m

Cape Town - While OR Tambo International Airport is making progress with the implementation of the integrated multi-disciplinary tactical security plan, with recent arrests made at the airport related to rhino horn and other crimes, other countries are also cracking down on the illegal trade of endangered animals at airport and port security.

Malaysian customs seized 8.8 ton of pangolin scales worth R311m (RM100m - R3.11/ Malaysian Ringgit) at the Sepanggar Bay container port in Kota Kinabalu, Malaysia.

Estimates by Malaysian customs officials state this equates to some 16 000 pangolins that have been poached, averaging out at about 500g per pangolin. This indicates significantly small individuals when you consider that the scales make up about 20% of the actual animal, which is being driven to the brink of extinction and further highlighting the plight of the endangered species, with all trade in pangolin banned by CITES on in 2016.  

According to Malaysian media The Star Online, Sabah Customs and Excise Department director Datuk Janathan Kandok says the "pangolin scales were found in 266 gunny sacks owned by a private company that was meant for export on July 29" and a 43-year-old local man, the owner of the company, has been detained.

READ: Do or Die: Deciding the pangolin's fate at CITES CoP17

Kandok says that according to initial investigations, the scales were on its way to China, but it was uncertain if the scales were from local pangolins. He did not rule out the possibility that it was "smuggled from neighbouring countries".

There eight specific species of pangolin worldwide, four are from Asia and four are from Africa.

The report says that the suspect hid the scales under marine shells to trick Customs officials, and on closer examination it was discovered beneath the sacks.

SEE: PICS: Pangolin pup death shows horror of this illegal trade

Pangolin scales are used for medicine and food by some people and "has high demand for its unproven aphrodisiac value", adds the report.

In June, a $1.2 million (R16 008m - R13.34/$) illegal shipment of pangolin scales were uncovered in Malaysia that came from Ghana and been transported by Turkish Airlines, while in July, authorities in Ivory Coast seized three tons of pangolin scales worth an estimated $82 000 (in excess of R1m), in what officials called a "massacre".

Security at ports may have tightened in an attempt to curb illegal trade of animals and its parts, but sadly, the situation remains dire for many endangered species around the world.

Get clued up...

Here are a few facts about pangolins you might not have known: 

1. Pangolins often called “scaly anteaters”, is the most trafficked mammal on earth

SEE: #ShockWildlifeTruths: The most trafficked mammal on the planet

CITES placed the eight species of pangolin on the convention's "Appendix I," at last year's 17th meeting of the UN's Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) held in Johannesburg. The ban prohibits any cross-border movement in the animals or their body parts for commercial purposes.

SEE: #WorldPangolinDay celebrated as species fight for survival: 8 Facts you need to know

Despite this, they are still victims of illegal trade and habitat loss to accidental death on electric fences. 

2. South Africa has its own endemic species

Ground Pangolins (Smutsia temminckii), have been found in Kruger National Park (KNP), Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park, Mapungubwe National Park and Marakele National Park.

3. Pangolins are Game-of-Thrones tough

Since they are covered in tough, overlapping scales, which assist in protecting them when they are threatened, these little critters are able to quickly roll themselves up into a tight defensive ball. 

4. They have an extraordinarily long and sticky tongue

They use when burrowing for their food, which is usually ants and termites.

5. Four-legged yet they only walk on two

The pangolin is also one of the few four-legged animals to walk on two legs, this is due to their large claws.

6. Nocturnal creatures by nature

The Chinese pangolin sleep in underground burrows during the day, whilst the African tree pangolins and Malayan pangolins are known to sleep in trees. They emerge in the evening to forage for insects.

7. Pangolins are well adapted for digging

They dig burrows with their strong front legs and claws, using their tails and rear legs for support and balance. Tunnelling underground, they excavate the sides and roofs of passages by pushing up and from side to side with their tough scaled bodies.

They use their front and hind feet to back accumulated soil toward the burrow entrance, and vigorously kick dirt out of the entrance up to a meter or more.

8. Pangolin DO NOT have healing powers 

In some cultures, it is believed that Pangolins possess healing powers and for this reason, they are regularly used in traditional medicine. Pangolins are also considered a delicacy and are in high demand in countries such as China and Vietnam. This is what makes them the most trafficked animal in the world.

What to read next on Traveller24:

#WorldPangolinDay celebrated as species fight for survival: 8 Facts you need to know

WATCH: Pangolin hacked with this digital device is what it's come down to

PICS: Pangolin pup death shows horror of this illegal trade

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