D.R. Congo’s Giant Pangolins : Two Tons of Scales Seized

2015 smoked pangolin meat
Tip of giant Pangolin tail smoked for sale. The scales were removed and sold separately to an Asian market.

The market for pangolin scales is exploding in D.R. Congo. Jules (not real name) called our attention to it in 2016. He is our crime sleuth around the northern Lomami buffer zone. In the town of Ubundu, Sept. 2016, he took a picture of a collection of scales drying in the sun – perhaps one giant pangolin. He was told rice buyers also bought pangolin scales. Jules heard the same when he was in Lowa later that year.

pangolin scales in Ubundu sept 2016
Pangolin scales drying in the sun in Ubundu.

Pangolins are a completely protected species in D.R.Congo. No hunting allowed. In January of 2017 while explaining this to his “informant” in the village of Liekelesole, the informant told Jules that he knew a hunter who dried pangolin scales to sell. He took Jules into his courtyard where the scales were spread on the ground.

Village of Liekelesole
A photo of Liekelesole taken by our outreach team in 2012.

Was it possible to follow up the supply chain? Who was the hunter’s buyer? Jules left his informant in Liekelesole on the pangolin scale trail.

How to hunt a giant pangolin? Rarely are they caught in snares. Too big, too strong. They rip themselves free. The most certain is to go after them with dogs. Apparently they have a very particular odor; hunters say they are accompanied by numerous flies. A dog can locate them in a burrow and then the hunter digs them out. Or if dogs surge on them in the forest pangolins curl into a ball like a giant cowry waiting to be collected. A machete blow to their head ends the hunt.

hunting camp with 2 dogs
A hunting camp with a dog at the feet of each of the men.

village hunting dog
Village hunting dog. Dogs are in all villages around the Lomami.

The informant from Liekelesole sent a message to Jules when the hunter gathered pangolin scales from his neighbors. He took them and his own north to Opala in February. An informant in Opala found out where the hunter would be in Kisangani. In March, in Kisangani another contact of Jules befriended the hunter pretending that he too had pangolin scales to sell.

The hunter said his previous buyer, a Maman Amanita, was no longer taking pangolin scales because her stock had been seized by the DGDA (customs officials).

mama Amanita in December
Maman Amanita

Jules’s contact found Maman Amanita on May 25th. He approached her; this is what she told him:

In January she had filled over 30 cargo sacks with Pangolin scales — each sack weighed about 70kg. They were all seized by the DGDA. The DGDA said it would make a deal: it took 16 sacks and left her with 14 and a half, but, they told her that if she talked law would come for her. She was furious, she got a lawyer. DGDA paid her a piddling sum and said that was all she would get, any more trouble and she would be arrested and thrown in jail because any shipment of pangolin scales is illegal.

DGDA's seizure report in February
The DGDA’s seizure report of 30.5 sacks of pangolin scales.

It was in July that Jules’s informant at the airport reported pangolin scales waiting to be shipped out on a transport plane: 16 sacks. Jules mobilized. He had the shipping slip. DGDA was the conveyor and paid $2250 to move their 1125 kg (over 1 ton). The correct legal procedure would have been to hand the scales over to the CITES authority (ICCN) right there in the city of Kisangani and at the time of seizure – 4 months earlier.

July 2017 pangolin scales in Kisangani
16 sacks of pangolin scales in July 2017 at an airport warehouse in Kisangani. They are to be shipped by DGDA (customs agency)to Kinshasa.

Since September 2016, all international commerce in Pangolin scales is forbidden by CITES, the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species. Despite this, the trade continues to increase.

Jules realized that the subterfuge reached high into the DGDA. He had to protect his own network of informants. Thus, as DGDA had already paid for the transport, ICCN in Kinshasa could make the arrest. He sent them photos of the sacks and the bill of lading.

Scales in Kinshasa in July
The scales arrive at the Kinshasa airport in Njili.

In Kinshasa ICCN took the case to the public prosecutor as DGDA tried to refuse the confiscation. They said that they had arrested the scales, it was their job to arrest illegal cargo.

The prosecutor did not hesitate: Where was the person arrested? He should be sent directly to Kinshasa for questioning, The sub-director of DGDA in Kisangani should also appear. And where is the official report of the seizure?
The official report was produced (see above). It said there were 30.5 sacks in all. Where were the rest?

photo mama Amanita and lawyer
Maman Aminita and lawyer at warehouse.

The DGDA in Kinshasa instructed the DGDA in Kisangani to send the remaining sacks! Poor mama Amanita. She showed up at the warehouse with a lawyer. These were HER pangolin scales; no one was going to take them!! DGDA had said she could have them.
Jules told the local ICCN authorities to call Kisangani’s Public Prosecutor. As in Kinshasa the prosecutor wanted to see not only the documents but also the original owner. Amanita and the lawyer both fled.

November examining pangolin scales
DGDA and ICCN examine the scales from the remaining 14.5 sacks in Kinsangani before shipment. The sub-director is second from right wearing a badge around his neck. The other DGDA staff is on the far left in blue shirt.

Now all the Pangolin scales – over two tons (between 300 and 450 animals) – are with ICCN in Kinshasa. These scales were confiscated in February long after the CITES ban on commercial shipment. We are waiting to hear the results of the prosecution – will heads role? And the fate of the scales – will they be publicly burned? We hope so.

Pangolin scales being taken by ICCN for shipment to Kin
ICCN transported the remaining 14.5 sacks for shipment to Kinshasa.

2 Comments

  1. Daniel Alempijevic
    Posted 2017-12-20 at 10:31 pm | Permalink

    I just viewed got my first giant pangolin on camera in Bafundo and revisited this post to compare to your video. It is unfathomable to think of one woman accumulating so many pangolins, I guess the dogs are a really effective way to detect them. I wonder how large of an area has been cleared of pangolins from this shipment, I imagine they persist at fairly low densities. Are you in contact with any pangolin conservation groups?

  2. Terese Hart
    Posted 2017-12-20 at 11:24 pm | Permalink

    There is an active group based in Cameroon:
    https://www.fws.gov/international/wildlife-without-borders/africa/mentor-progress-on-pangolins.html

    Francis Nchembi Tarla, the director, would be very interested in what you get on camera traps.
    [email protected]

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