Pangolin Prison 

This article is brought to you by the International League of Conservation Photographers (iLCP). Read our other articles on the National Geographic Voices blog featuring the work of our iLCP Fellow Photographers all around the world.

Text and photos by iLCP Fellow Paul Hilton.

A pangolin waits for its freedom, after a wildlife bust, 27th April 2015, Medan, Indonesia. A huge seizure of pangolin was conducted by the Indonesian National Police along side WCS’s, Wildlife Crimes Unit. The haul of the world’s most hunted animal is valued at USD 1.4 million. Photo: Paul Hilton of WCS

I’m back in Sumatra for the second time in a month. My taxi pulls up into an industrial part of town, where we are greeted by the Wildlife Conservation Society’s, Wildlife Crimes Unit. The smell of seafood lingers in the air as we walk towards a warehouse.

Police in military fatigues stand around outside. As we enter the building I notice a white board on the right. Names of hunters are listed on the left with dates, times and the amounts they dropped off. One hunter going by the name of Joni delivered 10 live pangolins in one day with a total weight of 38.3kg.

We are then escorted past two shipping containers towards the back of the warehouse into a separate room. Sixty multi-coloured poultry crates line the floor, prison cells with stressed, scared and dehydrated pangolins pacing back and forth. Some curled up in fear.

Poultry cages line the floor of the seafood warehouse, full of pangolins. 27th April 2015, Medan, Sumatra, Indonesia. Photo: Paul Hilton for WCS
Poultry cages line the floor of the seafood warehouse, full of pangolins. 27th April 2015, Medan, Sumatra, Indonesia. Photo: Paul Hilton for WCS
A total of 96 live pangolins are kept in poultry cages, 27th April 2015, Medan Indonesia. During a pangolin bust conducted by the Indonesian National Police along side WCS’s Wildlife Crimes Unit. Photo: Paul Hilton of WCS
A total of 96 live pangolins are kept in poultry cages, 27th April 2015, Medan Indonesia. Photo: Paul Hilton of WCS

After absorbing that scene, I’m quickly called over to view the inside of a refrigerated shipping container, as the door opened I was hit with a cloud of condensation, it started to clear, frozen pangolins were randomly placed in plastic bags and boxes alongside sacks of pangolin scales and meat. Additional to the large container another small fridge/freezer contained another 6 frozen pangolins.

Frozen pangolins, 27th April 2015, Medan Indonesia. During a pangolin bust conducted by the Indonesian National Police along side WCS’s Wildlife Crimes Unit. . Photo: Paul Hilton of WCS
Frozen pangolins, stripped of their scales, 27th April 2015, Medan Indonesia. During a pangolin bust conducted by the Indonesian National Police along side WCS’s Wildlife Crimes Unit. Photo: Paul Hilton of WCS
Photo: Paul Hilton of WCS
Photo: Paul Hilton of WCS
Photo: Paul Hilton of WCS
Photo: Paul Hilton of WCS
Photo: Paul Hilton of WCS
Photo: Paul Hilton of WCS

My mind raced off to Southern China and Vietnam where these animals are consumed by the thousands for the exotic meat trade, and the scales are used in traditional Chinese medicine with the unfounded claim that they treat a variety of ailments. Sadly the pangolin has become the most highly traded mammal on the black market, and consequently one of the most threatened.

This huge seizure was a joint operation between the Indonesian National Police’s Criminal Investigation Division (BARESKRIM MABES POLRI), the Government of Indonesia, and the Wildlife Conservation Society’s Wildlife Crimes Unit (WCU) in Medan, Sumatra.

A total of 96 live animals were found, along side 5 tons of frozen pangolins, 100 kilograms of scales with an estimated black market value of 1.8 million US dollars.  Plus 24 bear paws.

Deputy Director Special Crime, CID of the Indonesian National Police, Police Senior Commissioner Didid Widjanardi displays frozen pangolins, 27th April 2015, Medan Indonesia. Photo: Paul Hilton of WCS
Deputy Director Special Crime, CID of the Indonesian National Police, Police Senior Commissioner Didid Widjanardi displays frozen pangolins, 27th April 2015, Medan Indonesia. Photo: Paul Hilton of WCS
A plain cloths poilce officer inspects frozen pangolin during a press conference at the crime scene, 27th April 2015, Medan, Indonesia. Photo: Paul Hilton for WCS
A plain cloths police officer inspects frozen pangolin during a press conference at the crime scene, 27th April 2015, Medan, Indonesia. Photo: Paul Hilton for WCS
Bags full of pangolin scales, ready for export on the black market.
Bags full of pangolin scales, ready for export on the black market.

The bust took place on April 23, 2015, at a warehouse near Belawan port in Medan, the largest city on the island of Sumatra. Belawan port has a reputation for being a smuggling hub for illegal wildlife trade in Sumatra. The trader, identified by the initials SHB operating a seafood trading company, by the name of UD Sumber Laut Utama, sourced all the pangolins from local hunters/traders in Aceh and North Sumatra, bordering the Leuser ecosystem. SHB is now under arrest, pending a court case. Under the Indonesian law, trafficking of pangolins and their parts or by-products is punishable by a maximum penalty of five years of imprisonment and a maximum fine of USD $10,000.

In recent years, the price of pangolin has increased sharply in the international market, driven by demand from China.  Pangolin scales (used by traditional Chinese medicine practitioners) are valued at USD $3,000 per kg, pangolin meat (considered a delicacy) at USD $300 per kg, and live pangolins at USD $992. Smugglers also ship pangolin innards, including fetuses, for traditional medicinal purposes.

Based upon evidence gathered during the arrest, the shipment was headed to China via Belawan port where the container was to be transferred to a vessel destined for China via Haiphong Seaport in Vietnam. The trader also admitted to shipping live pangolins to Penang, Malaysia through the remote seaport in the past.

Belawan port, Medan, Sumatra, Indonesia, 28th April 2015. Photo: Paul Hilton for WCS
Belawan port, Medan, Sumatra, Indonesia, 28th April 2015. Photo: Paul Hilton for WCS

There are eight species of pangolins (Family: Manidae) still in existence worldwide. Four of the species are of Asian origin including the Sunda Pangolin (Manis javanicus), which is listed as Critically Endangered by the International Union for Conservation of Nature. The pangolin’s large scales are made of keratin, the same material as fingernails and rhino horns, and account for 20% of its weight.

Deputy Director Special Crime, CID of the Indonesian National Police, Police Senior Commissioner Didid Widjanardi said, “Pangolins are protected under Indonesia Law. The Indonesian National Police and WCS’s WCU have done a great job in tackling pangolin smuggling since 2008. We will continue our collaboration in the future through preventive actions, which is important to saving pangolins.

A couple of hours later the WCS team start loading the live pangolins onto the back of a truck, making preparations to get them to the release site before days end.

Local press and wildlife officials joined the convoy, and after two hours we reach the protected forest on the outskirts of Medan.

On arrival all the crates were offloaded and then carried to different locations in the forest. Some pangolins scurried out of the crates, others needed a helping hand. Some just curled up in balls.

Pangolin release, after 96 live pangolins were confiscated, 27th April 2015, Medan Indonesia. Photo: Paul Hilton of WCS
Pangolin release, after 96 live pangolins were confiscated, 27th April 2015, Medan Indonesia. Photo: Paul Hilton of WCS
Pangolin release, after 96 live panglins were confiscated, 27th April 2015, Medan Indonesia.  Photo: Paul Hilton of WCS
Pangolin release, after 96 live pangolins were confiscated, 27th April 2015, Medan Indonesia. Photo: Paul Hilton of WCS

Before we left the release site I took one last frame. A mother and baby pangolin curled up in a ball. Their fate is in our hands. Is it not a time to reflect on the mistakes we have made and move to a more sustainable and frugal way of life – for the future of all living creatures, including ourselves?

Critically endangered mother and baby pangolin, were part of a release effort on the outskirts of Medan, 27th April 2015, Sumatra, Indonesia. After 96 live pangolins were confiscated during a pangolin bust conducted by the Indonesian National Police along side WCS’s Wildlife Crimes Unit.  Photo: Paul Hilton of WCS
Critically endangered mother and baby pangolin, were part of a release effort on the outskirts of Medan, 27th April 2015, Sumatra, Indonesia.  Photo: Paul Hilton of WCS

Help us is spreading the word about the plight of the pangolin by sharing this article, and letting more people know, before the pangolin is gone.

Please donate to Wildlife Conservation Society: http://www.wcs.org/wcs-org/donate.aspx

Other organizations that are working to raise awareness of the pangolin include Save Pangolins and  International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Species Survival Commission Pangolin Specialist Group.

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