Trafficking in pangolins continues to rise in Malawi as the country registers a drop in ordinary wildlife crime, such as trafficking in elephant tusks and rhino horns. Wildlife authorities say pangolin-related arrests in Malawi more than tripled between 2019 and 2020. Police in Malawi say a month rarely passes with no pangolin-related arrest. Authorities fear this may lead to extinction of the endangered mammals.

The latest is the arrest last Thursday of five people in Mangochi district, in the south of Malawi after they were found selling a live pangolin.

“The four suspects are Malawian while their accomplice is a well-known businessman from Pakistan,” said Ameena Tepani Daudi, who speaks for the police in the district. “The five were arrested at the Pakistan national’s house following a tip from members of the community. We found all of them in a bedroom while negotiating about selling price. And the pangolin was found hidden in a sack bag.”

Daudi said via a messaging app that suspects are expected in court soon.

“All suspects have been charged with illegal possession of specimens of listed species which contravenes section 110(b) of National Parks and Wildlife Act. And they will appear before court, possibly next week,” she added.

Police say the incident is among many pangolin-trafficking arrests in recent years.

Last year’s report by Lilongwe Wildlife Trust says Malawi is a range state for the Temminck’s ground pangolin, the only pangolin species found in southern Africa, now threatened with extinction.

Brighton Kumchedwa, the director of Malawi’s Department of National Parks and Wildlife, says the increase in pangolin trafficking is not surprising, considering recent research estimating that global pangolin populations have declined by 80% in the last 20 years.

“For Malawi, we can speculate that a shift from ivory trafficking to pangolin is because, one, the size of a pangolin is so small, easy to conceal but also it is fetching a reasonable amount of money on a black market. But also the existence in the country of foreign nationals that eat pangolins as delicacy, but also use of scales in medicine, that’s why an increase in pangolin trafficking,” he said.

Kumchedwa says last week’s arrest of a Pakistani national in connection with pangolin trafficking confirms that the presence of some foreign nationals, particularly from Asia is fueling trafficking in pangolin.

Kumchdewa says strategies are in place to prevent possible extinction of the endangered mammals in Malawi and these include stiffer penalties to perpetrators.

According to the revised anti-wildlife-trafficking law in Malawi, perpetrators caught in possession of live pangolins or any of their derivatives face a prison sentence of up to 30 years, with no option for a fine.

“But also we have our own investigation unit, which is helping quite a lot, because it is largely intelligence-led law enforcement. But also, more than that, is how the courts have indeed applied the law. They are giving custodial sentences. We are seeing people taken to jail for seven years, five years found in possession of a pangolin,” he said.

Kumchedwa asked Malawians to be more patriotic and help the government by reporting to authorities about people involved in illegal pangolin trade, as well as in other protected animals.

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