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1 Jul   2020   (WED)   to  31 Aug  2020   (MON)  

Garden Insiders │ KFBG researchers join forces to scale-up protection for over-exploited pangolins

Time: Whole day


Since 2012, FLO and FAU has been working together to use DNA barcoding to understand the illegal pangolin trade. A collaboration was established with AFCD to ensure that not all seized pangolin scales were destroyed after the legal cases, but samples were kept for KFBG to be used in future scientific analysis. These scales have enabled work to be undertaken by the Conservation Genetics lab to investigate important aspects of the seized scales, in turn providing results that can be valuable to conservation and enforcement efforts in Hong Kong and globally. One of key aims has been to identify the species and origin of pangolins illegally traded into Hong Kong. An analysis published by Zhang et al. 2015 revealed the existence of two distinct genetic lineages belonging to the Sunda pangolin (Manis javanica) being sourced over a wide geographic area in Southeast Asia.

The team’s ongoing research over the past five years now provides insights into the occurrence of African pangolins in trade. Published in May this year, their second paper presents results that build a more comprehensive picture of the current state of affairs. 



This time, the Conservation Genetics lab analysed 1800 scales sampled from 30 seizures made between 2012–2016. All four African pangolin species were detected. This suggests that Hong Kong is a key transit hub for the illegal pangolin trade from Africa to Asia. The data indicate that the Tree pangolin (Phataginus tricuspis) is the most commonly traded African pangolin species. It was detected together with the other African pangolin species in most seizures, but predominantly with the Long-tailed pangolin (P. tetradactyla). The ranges of these two pangolins, together with that of the Giant pangolin (Smutsia gigantea), overlap throughout much of Central and West Africa, suggesting that these three species are being collected and trafficked together. The fourth species, the Ground pangolin (S. temminckii), which occurs in Eastern and Southern Africa, was only detected in a single seizure from Uganda. The lack of overlap in its distribution range with that of the other three species may explain its under-representation in the Hong Kong seizures.

All six distinct phylogeographic lineages of the Tree pangolin were found among the seized samples, reflecting widespread hunting and poaching throughout Africa. However, most of the scales were exported from Nigeria and Cameroon, suggesting that these two countries play a significant role in the intercontinental illegal pangolin trade. This finding is consistent with other global seizures data. However, trade routes are complicated with export records from several other African countries, such as Ghana, Kenya and Uganda, also being confirmed.



Another important finding of the study was that scales contained in small airmail parcels accounted for about as much genetic diversity as that found in large sea shipments, suggesting that traffickers use parcels as an alternative means for transport for large consignments.

This latest study highlights the usefulness of DNA analysis in characterising the trade in pangolins. The methods can be applied for ongoing monitoring and the results can help guide future law enforcement interventions. Prof. Ray Jansen, Chairman of African Pangolin Working Group, said this study was “an outstanding piece of work and is incredibly useful”.

To end on a more positive note, in the wake of the coronavirus outbreak, China has banned the consumption of pangolin scales for food and medicine, removing the Chinese Pangolin from the official list of Traditional Chinese Medicines. This breakthrough moment resonates with KFBG’s findings and could be a real game-changer.