Stakeholders involved in the protection of wildlife in Malawi are emphasizing the need for the public to change its mindset when dealing with Pangolins.
Of all mammals that live on earth, the Pangolin is the only one with horny, sharp and overlapping scales all over its body except on the frontal part of its throat, legs and tummy and the sides of its face.
The animal species is very rare that Malawi is among only a handful of countries around the globe that are fortunate enough to have living specimen of this amazing creature.
Current statistics however show that the Pangolin faces imminent extinction owing to its continued illegal hunting, capture, trafficking and subsequent killing and it is a huge concern for wildlife preserving agencies.
Wildlife specialist at Lilongwe Wildlife Trust, Laston Chimaliro, describes Pangolins as animals that control pests with research data showing that each pangolin eats an estimated 70 million insects – mainly ants and termites – annually.
“Pangolins also improve soil quality as their large and elongated claws enable them to burrow underground for shelter as well as when digging ant and termite nests for food.
“As they burrow the land, the soil gets mixed and aerated much like what happens when humans till or plough fields,” says Chimaliro.
The animal according to Chimaliro is by no means a dangerous creature and it moves in solitary, hunts at night and only meets fellow Pangolins when mating.
All eight species of pangolins in both Asia and Africa are under threat of extinction, prompting global wildlife authorities to list the animal as vulnerable, endangered or critically endangered.
Data from the Department of National Parks and Wildlife shows that currently, the estimated total population of pangolins in Malawi is not known, but in 2020 alone; 28 of them have been seized from poachers resulting in 26 recorded court cases.
The data further indicates that far, 58 criminal arrests have been documented with 19 convictions and sentences ranging from 24 to 72 months imprisonment with hard labour.
The trend, according to Department of National Parks and Wildlife Director Brighton Kumchedwa, stems from beliefs – mostly among the Oriental community – that pangolin scales have magical powers to heal diseases like cancer.
“Our colleagues from Asia are the ones making it look like a lucrative business because when Pangolins are sold, they believe they could cure diseases like cancer and the caucus is eaten for protein provision. When trafficked, they are therefore bought at a higher price,” laments Kumchedwa.
Confessions from those that have encountered the long arm of the law after being found in illegal possession of the creature suggest that the common goal was to fetch millions after selling them live or dead. Some were confident of making a quick buck by selling merely the unique animal’s skin or scales.
The illegitimate trade appears established world over and, in a quest to curb it, Malawi’s current Wildlife Crimes Act provides for a maximum of 30 years imprisonment for convicted offenders.
About three months ago in August, 47-year-old Douglas Makhala and 24-year-old Daniel Chimwanye were sentenced to three years imprisonment for attempting to sell pangolin skin weighing 2.97 kilograms without license in Lilongwe.
Police prosecutor Trust Banda saw to it that the duo was duly prosecuted and punished where he was pleading with the court to hand a stiffer sentence to the convicts.
“A lot of donors are pumping money into securing the wildlife and these protected species, so my encouragement on a stiffer sentence was premised on the fact that the money spent should reflect progress,” explains Banda.
In the same month, the courts in Lilongwe took an iconic swing on nine members of a wildlife poaching syndicate with a combined prison sentence of about 56 years.
The nine were members of the Chinese national Lin-Zhang’s syndicate and were each convicted of at least one wildlife trafficking offence involving a listed or protected species including pangolins.
On their part, the police indicate that they are doing all they can to further protect pangolins Director of Human Resource and Development at Malawi Police, Stain Kaliza stresses that efforts in place are better than before.
“For the past one or two years we have been able to crack the syndicates mostly run by both transborder and local criminals and now, we have a department specially instituted to deal with wildlife crimes,” says Kaliza.
As much as efforts are being applied to curb the trend, the fact that pangolins go through the most stressful moments when captured should not be overlooked.
Wildlife specialist Laston Chimaliro views pangolins as any other animal that has to be taken care of and protected at all costs as in the hands of captures, it goes through stressful moments that would even hurt them. He points out that most people do not know how to handle the creature in terms of what it needs to stay alive.
“When Pangolins are captured and taken out of their natural habitat by these poachers and illegal traders, they get stressed a lot like any animal and that stress usually results into injury because they curl into a ball which cannot be loosened by hands,” adds Chimaliro.
Scientists and biologists have disproved the notion that scales of Pangolins, let alone any parts of their bodies have magical healing powers. They further believe there is far much better game in the wild which provide even more delicious meat than the precious Pangolin that unfortunately is slowly being wiped off the surface of the earth.
As law enforcers and other stakeholders are not relenting in the fight, change in the public’s mindset is also being described as critical to ensure that Pangolins and other wildlife species remain protected to the fullest.