Chinese gang of pangolin smugglers jailed over US$17.6 million haul of scales

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A court in eastern China has sentenced a gang of pangolin smugglers to up to 14 years in jail in one of the biggest cases of its kind in recent years.

Wenzhou Intermediate People’s Court announced on Tuesday morning that two of the defendants, identified by their family names Yao and Wang, had been sentenced to 14 years and 13 years in jail respectively and fined 4 million yuan (US$618,000) and 3 million yuan for trafficking 23 tonnes of scales from one of the world’s most endangered animals.

Fifteen others were given sentences ranging from 15 months to 12 years, reported.

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The report said Yao and Wang had started trafficking the scales, which are valued for their use in traditional Chinese medicine, in 2018. An associate smuggled them into the country from Nigeria and the pair then sold them on in China.

The gang was caught in October the following year, when Wenzhou police seized over 10.94 tonnes of pangolin scales after they intercepted a shipment. At the time it was hailed as the largest haul seized that year with an estimated value of 114 million yuan (US$17.6 million).

A report by Science and Technology Daily estimated that more than 50,000 pangolins would have been killed to generate such a haul.

Pangolins are the most heavily trafficked wild mammal in the world.

Pangolins removed from Chinese directory of medicines

Three of the eight species of pangolin found in Asia and Africa – including the Chinese pangolin – are listed as critically endangered by the International Union for Conservation of Nature.

Although the pangolin scales are made of keratin – the same protein found in human nails – scales and fetuses have been used in traditional Chinese medicine for centuries.

Police in Wenzhou intercepted a shipment of scales in October 2019. Photo: Weibo
Police in Wenzhou intercepted a shipment of scales in October 2019. Photo: Weibo

Beijing has stepped up its protections in recent years, banning the hunting of pangolins in 2007, and outlawing imports of the animals and their by-products 11 years later.

But trafficking has remained rampant. According to the China Biodiversity Conservation and Green Development Foundation, 123 tonnes of pangolin scales were confiscated by Chinese authorities in 2019 alone.

Following the coronavirus outbreak in 2020, the Chinese government passed a fast track ban last February on the trade and consumption of wild animals in an effort to avoid further outbreaks.

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In June last year, the authorities also banned the use of pangolin scales in traditional Chinese medicine, a move hailed by conservationists as an important step.

The decision came just days after the National Forestry and Grassland Administration designated pangolins a “first-tier protected wild animal” on a par with giant pandas and tigers.

The change in its protected status means the maximum sentence for anyone found guilty of hunting or trading pangolins has been raised from five to 10 years to life.

Sophia Zhang, director of the pangolin working group at the China Biodiversity Conservation and Green Development Foundation, said that there would still be more cases like the latest one because of loopholes in the law and policing practices.

“Pangolins are delisted from the traditional Chinese medicine official list, but some medicines containing pangolin scales are still on sale, so the law needs to follow up,” she said.

Under Chinese criminal law, smuggling cases that involve fewer than eight pangolins would not be considered “severe” crimes and only warrant a relatively light penalty.

“Now people know that pangolins are as precious as pandas, but there are still some deficiencies in the law and practice,” Zhang said.

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