The pangolin, a small mammal with keratin scales, is the most trafficked animal on the planet. In 2019 over 61 metric tons of pangolin products were seized in Asia. The strong demand for keratin scales and pangolin meat in Asia creates a lucrative business for wildlife traffickers. Pangolin traffickers capitalize on Singapore’s heavy port traffic by using the country as a transshipment center between Africa and Asia. 50,280 vessels sailed into Singapore’s ports in the first three months of 2019 alone, providing ample cover for wildlife trafficking. Without greater law enforcement oversight and punitive measures, all eight species of pangolin could face extinction.
The use of pangolin scales for traditional medicine has greatly amplified demand, especially within China. Claims about the curative properties of pangolin scales have been disproven by scientific research, such as a study published in the journal Conservation Science and Practice addressing the myth that keratin scales contain analgesic tramadol. Despite the contradictory evidence, traditional medicine continues to recommend using crushed keratin scales for health issues ranging from skin infections to lactation problems. The Chinese government has exacerbated the issue by condoning the use of pangolin scales in traditional medicine created by pharmaceutical companies. Although China has banned the importation of pangolin scales, limited oversight means companies likely obtain pangolin scales from wildlife traffickers as opposed to dwindling government stockpiles. As local species have been hunted to near-extinction in China, pharmaceutical companies use scales from African pangolins transported illegally through central maritime hubs like Singapore. China, however, recently took a more proactive step towards reducing demand by no longer including pangolin medicine under products covered by Chinese insurance.
Illicit actors consistently use Singapore as a transshipment hub, making Singapore one of the top six countries responsible for pangolin trafficking. The heavy traffic and emphasis on cargo processing speed in Singapore’s ports makes thorough oversight challenging. Smugglers and crime syndicates exploit existing illicit supply chains to move pangolins from Africa across Southeast and East Asia. In April 2019, Singapore Customs and the Immigration Checkpoints Authority intercepted two of the largest shipments of pangolin scales ever recorded, totaling nearly 26 tonnes. Traveling from Nigeria to Vietnam, smugglers had labeled bags of scales from over 38,000 pangolins as “cassia seeds” and “frozen beef.” To ensure the scales will not re-enter the market, the Singapore Customs and the Immigration Checkpoints Authority plan on destroying the shipments. The alarming quantities intercepted by Singapore’s law enforcement are likely only a small portion of the total amount smuggled through the country. Although figures are notoriously difficult to estimate, a study by INTERPOL suggests authorities intercept only a tenth of trafficked wildlife.
Both the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) act and Singapore’s national laws protect pangolins by making their import, export, and transshipment illegal. After taking effect in 2017, the CITES act voted on by 183 member states banned commercial trade of all eight pangolin species worldwide. Singapore's own Endangered Species Act allows authorities to impose a fine of $500,000 and two years of imprisonment for pangolin trafficking. Despite protective measures at both the international and national level, pangolin trafficking in Singapore continues. In the maritime domain, Singapore could develop more stringent and advanced port screening methods to detect and deter wildlife trafficking through its ports. Singapore has already integrated several additional measures, including thorough risk assessments, layering of checkpoints, and increased agency collaboration. These approaches can be enhanced by more focused anti-wildlife trafficking training for port officials to complement the methodical scanning of cargo done through Singapore's automated port systems.
Wider Ramifications for Illicit Trade: The Maritime Security Index
The Stable Seas Maritime Security Index offers a systematic method of measuring good governance, economic resilience, and security at sea for 70 countries in Asia and Africa. Singapore’s country profile indicates that the country scored above average for efforts against illicit trades, which reflects the tough laws Singapore has set into place against wildlife trafficking. As the profile acknowledges, however, Singapore's position along the straits of Malacca makes it one the busiest shipping ports in the world. The strategic location has turned Singapore into a regional financial, technological, and trade center, and pangolin traffickers use the overcrowded ports to avoid detection and prosecution.
Singapore's unwanted role as a transshipment hub for pangolin trafficking contributes to the quickly dwindling numbers of wild pangolins. As demand shows no signs of abating, more measures need to be implemented and enforced to ensure the survival of the pangolin. Educating people on their endangered status, for example, could encourage communities to protect the animals from poachers. The large shipments of pangolin products transported in massive containers meanwhile remain a security issue that all major regional ports, including Singapore’s, need to more adequately address. Without redoubled efforts, the unique mammal will face extinction.