In a significant victory for the battle against illegal wildlife trade, law enforcement officials in Benin have seized more than half a tonne (500kg) of trafficked pangolin scales in a single operation, helped by training from international conservation charity ZSL (Zoological Society of London).
The seizure, made at Cadjehoun Airport in Benin’s capital Cotonou, is believed to be a new record for the West African country’s efforts to stem wildlife crime. Approximately 1,500 pangolins-the world’s most heavily trafficked wild mammals-were killed to make up the haul, which was likely destined for Asian markets where their scales are used in traditional medicines.
Cadjehoun’s Cellule Aeroportuaire Anti-Trafics (CAAT) team arrested four men and seized 23 bags of scales in an operation that also exposes a previously unidentified smuggling route for wildlife traffickers.
Pangolins, which are indigenous to a number of countries across Africa and Asia, are facing severe pressure across their range, due primarily to poaching for their scales and meat; more than one million are believed to have been snatched from the wild in the past decade alone. The elusive animals were recently up-listed to the highest category of protection under CITES (the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species), making all trade in their parts illegal.
Also known as ‘scaly anteaters’, pangolins have long sticky tongues for picking up ants and termites. When threatened, they roll up into a ball, using their super-strong scales as protection. However, this does not defend them against poachers, who simply pick them up and carry them off in sacks, with one pangolin taken from the wild and killed every 5 minutes.
Commenting on the operation, ZSL’s Head of Africa Conservation Programmes Chris Ransom said: “This is a very significant seizure involving one of the world’s most heavily trafficked animals, so we would like to send our congratulations to Benin’s authorities and the CAAT team in particular for this breakthrough. The fact our local partners also appear to have uncovered a previously unrecognised smuggling route out of West Africa during this operation gives double cause for celebration.
“Successes like this underscore the vital importance of the training and mentoring ZSL offers to in-country law enforcement teams, as part of our wider commitment to building conservation capacity in the regions where we operate. While this success in Benin gives cause for optimism, the sheer size of this seizure also demonstrates the urgent need to continue working with authorities in Benin and across the world to combat the insidious threat illegal wildlife trade poses to species and habitats globally.”
The CAAT team, which usually focuses on combatting narcotics trafficking, recently underwent training, funded by the Elephant Crisis Fund, with ZSL conservation law enforcement specialists, covering areas including evidence-gathering, profiling techniques, human rights and wildlife product recognition.
"We congratulate our colleagues and partners in Benin for this significant seizure," said Dirck Byler, U.S Fish and Wildlife Service Africa Programmes Chief. "This is an impressive result for ZSL’s training and mentoring of in-country law enforcement teams, and we’re pleased to have supported this effort. Wildlife trafficking is a global problem, and we’re committed to being part of the global response."
Illegal wildlife trade is currently believed to represent the world’s fourth-largest illicit industry, alongside drugs, arms and human trafficking.
ZSL’s work fighting the illegal wildlife trade in Benin also receives funding from the USFWS International Affairs Program and the Save the Elephant and Wildlife Conservation Network’s Elephant Crisis Fund, an initiative launched by Save the Elephants and the Wildlife Conservation Network in partnership with the Leonardo DiCaprio Foundation.