"About 80 percent were still alive."
Jakarta (ANTARA News) - Pangolins, also known as scaly anteaters, are not cute animal that people would like to keep as pets, but they are in high demand because their meat and scales are prized mostly in China and Vietnam as food and medicine.

In 2011 alone, around 41,000-60,000 pangolins are believed to have been removed from the wild for these purposes.

Pangolins (Manis sp.) are on the brink of extinction, despite the fact that they are protected under the UN`s Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES), and trading in the animal and their products is illegal. Pangolines are also included in the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species 2008 as being endangered.

According to conservation groups, smuggling of the animal is rampant and they are frequently poached from the wild, mainly in Indonesia and Malaysia, exacerbating the threat of extinction from rapid deforestation.

They are transported through southeast Asia, mostly ending up in China and Vietnam, where pangolin flesh is a delicacy and its scales - the only mammal known to have them - are ground into a powder for supposed medicinal purposes, including to cure cancer.

Pangolins, known locally as trenggiling, are a protected species in Indonesia in line with the Government Regulation No. 7 of 1999 on Preservation of Plant and Wildlife. If the pangolin smugglers are caught, they face a maximum of five years in prison and a Rp100 million (US $10,411) fine.

Forestry Minister Zulkifli Hasan recently told the Jakarta Post that "rampant smuggling of trenggiling has brought the species to the edge of extinction. We closely work with the police, the prosecutor`s office and the customs office at the airport and Tanjung Priok Port to curb the trade."

The forestry ministry estimates that 12 tons of pangolins are trafficked each year. The ministry destroyed more than 10 tonnes of smuggled pangolin meat between 2011 and 2012, according to the ministry`s Director General of Forest Protection and Nature Conservation Darori Wonodipuro said in early December 2012.

The latest action was on December 10, 2012 when at least 7.4 tons of illegal pangolin meat and 64 kg of pangolin scales were destroyed and buried in Bogor, West Java.

The pangolin meat and scales had been seized by the Indonesian customs department, Police and the forest protection and Nature Conservation among other things from two Chinese citizens who had intended to smuggle out the pangolin meat at the Tanjung Priok Port in July 2011.

Another 17.5 tons and 334 kg of scales will be disposed following the completion of legal proceedings against the traffickers.

In July this year, the Indonesian police had also intercepted 85 endangered pangolins, most of them alive despite being stuffed into sacks by suspected smugglers.

The animals were packed in 14 sacks when they were seized at a bus station in the city of Medan in North Sumatra, said Yoris Marzuki, the chief detective of the local police.

"About 80 percent were still alive. We suspect that they were being smuggled abroad via Malaysia to Hong Kong or mainland China," he said. He added that the police were working with the natural resources conservation agency to release the animals back to the wild.

There was also a report that customs officers at Jakarta`s Sukarno-Hatta Airport seized 1,732 kg of pangolin meat and a further 380 kg of pangolin scales on July 10, 2012. The de-scaled pangolins were packed in boxes labelled as fresh fish and destined for Singapore. One suspect was arrested and if convicted faces a possible five years in prison.

In May this year 7.5 tonnes of pangolins and 65 kg of scales were seized at the country`s biggest port in Jakarta, en route to Viet Nam.

In August 2012, thanks to the efforts of Rhino Protection Units (RPUs) in Bukit Barisan Selatan National Park, members of a known pangolin trafficking syndicate had been apprehended. RPUs and park rangers acting on an informant tip-off nabbed an armed suspect in a village just outside Bukit Barisan Selatan National Park. The suspect was carrying 14 dead pangolins, 5 kg of pangolin flesh, and 1.5 kg of pangolin skins in his vehicle. He was also in possession of heroin and an automatic weapon.

East Java authorities reported on December 1, 2012, that they managed to foil an attempt to smuggle out 228 frozen pangolins to overseas from Juanda Airport in Surabaya.

Recently, Musi Rawas police officers in South Sumatra Province arrested five people for allegedly trying to sell 165 heads of live and 43 skinned pangolin (manis javanica) as well as two kilograms of pangolin scales.

The illegal traders confessed they would take the animal to Medan, North Sumatra. From the home the police confiscated 43 skinned pangolin weighing up to 500 kilograms and a plastic bag containing pangolin scales kept in two refrigerators.

All the suspects were now being detained at the Musi Rawas police station while the police continued investigating the case to see if they are part of a syndicate of protected animal traders.

Commenting on those seizures, Dan Challender, a researcher at the University of Kent`s Durrell Institute of Conservation and Ecology (DICE) who is studying trade in Asian pangolins in co-operation with TRAFFIC, said "While the Indonesian authorities should be congratulated for making this seizure, it is just one of a number of similar incidents recently in the region, highlighting the ongoing illicit trade."

Interpol on its website in August 2012 reported that countries across Southeast Asia have taken part in the largest coordinated operation called "Operation Libra" against the illegal poaching and trade in pangolins.

The operation was coordinated by INTERPOL`s Environmental Crime Programme and took place in June and July that involved investigations and enforcement actions across Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Thailand and Vietnam.

Supported by the Freeland Foundation through a grant from USAID, the operation led to the arrest of more than 40 individuals, with some 200 additional cases currently under investigation across the region.

During Operation Libra, which also saw the assistance of the World Customs Organization (WCO) and the ASEAN-Wildlife Enforcement Network, enforcement agencies conducted raids on restaurants and other premises across the region.

Approximately 1,220 pangolins were recovered, almost half of which were still alive. In addition to pangolins, birds, snakes and eight tigers cubs were also seized.

In one case, as a result of close international cooperation, Indonesian authorities discovered a shipment of frozen pangolins bound for Vietnam. The shipment was found to contain 260 cartons of frozen pangolins weighing 5 tonnes in total.

David Higgins, the head of INTERPOL`s Environmental Crime Programme said: "Operation Libra is an outstanding example of the results that can be achieved through international cooperation in addressing the trafficking of one of the world`s most vulnerable animals. But unless we build on the momentum started by this operation and identify and prosecute those controlling the trade, it is highly likely we will see the extinction of pangolins in many regions".

The population of pangolins in the world is estimated to have declined 50% over the last 15 years, and projected to further decline over the next 15 years.

Reporter: by Fardah
Editor: Priyambodo RH
Copyright © ANTARA 2012