Singapore makes huge pangolin scale seizures

Singapore says over five days it has seized around 26 tonnes of pangolin scales belonging to about 38,000 creatures.

Customs officers this week found 12.7 tonnes of pangolin scales in 474 bags in a container supposedly carrying cassia seeds.

The haul comes after the authorities uncovered 12.9 tonnes of pangolin scales in a separate container labelled as frozen meat. 

Singapore, which says it is committed to international efforts to break the illegal wildlife trade, is believed to be a major transit point.

The scales seized were from the giant ground pangolin and the white-bellied tree pangolin, said the National Parks Board of Singapore. 

Both shipments were heading from Nigeria to Vietnam with a combined value of US$77 million, making it Singapore’s biggest pangolin scale seizure. It is unclear if the two batches were related.

The total amount of pangolin scales seized on April 3 and April 8 is a record 25.6 tonnes.

In 2015 and 2016, two pangolin scales seizures, amounting to 440kg, were made in Singapore.

The endangered pangolin is the world’s most heavily trafficked mammal, with more than 1 million seized in the wild during the last 10 years, the World Wide Fund for Nature reported.

Paul Thomson of the Pangolin Specialist Group said the seizure “underscores the fact that pangolins are facing a crisis”. He added: “If we don’t stop the illegal wildlife trade, pangolins face the risk of going extinct.”

It is believed the scales seized in Singapore represented only 10 per cent of the mammals killed. 

Under Singapore’s Endangered Species Act, illegal trading in wildlife can bring a fine of up to S$500,000 and two years in jail.

There are four species of pangolin, sometimes called a scaly anteater, in Africa and four in Asia, all of which are listed as protected and endangered.

Pangolin scales are made of keratin, which is the same material in human hair and fingernails. The scales make up around 20 per cent of the photogenic creatures’ weight.

The scales can fetch up to US$3,000 per kg on the black market.

The scales are used by the Chinese and Vietnamese in traditional medicines to treat ailments from cancer to arthritis, despite little evidence that they have any curative effects. 

A WildAid conservation group survey estimated that around 70 per cent of Chinese citizens believed pangolin scales, often taken as a powder or drunk in wine, could cure rheumatism, skin diseases and other ailments.

Pangolin meat is considered a delicacy.

In February, Hong Kong customs broke a large endangered species smuggling operation from Africa, seizing millions of dollars worth of pangolin scales and elephant tusks.


The endangered pangolin. Picture credit: Flickr