Countries across Southeast Asia have taken part in the largest coordinated operation against the illegal poaching and trade in pangolins. Operation Libra, coordinated by INTERPOL’s Environmental Crime Programme, took place in June and July and 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.
Pangolins are found across most of Asia and Africa. The nocturnal mammals feed on termites and other insects using a well-developed sense of smell to locate their prey. During the day, and for protection, they curl into a ball, protected by large scales which cover their body.
Pangolins are poached and illegally traded by the thousands, due to a high demand for their scales, which are used in traditional medicine, and their meat, which is considered a delicacy. Because of their secluded nature, the impact of the illegal trade on the pangolins and their habitats is difficult to assess, but some Southeast Asian forests are believed to be nearly devoid of pangolins.
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. INTERPOL’s I-24/7 secure communications system was used and additional assistance provided by the WCO to track the shipment to Hai Phong, Vietnam, where it was intercepted by customs officers. The shipment was found to contain 260 cartons of frozen pangolins weighing 5 tonnes in total. The two countries are working together to identify the suspects.
David Higgins, 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”.
All eight species of pangolin are protected under national laws, and are also covered by the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES). In spite of this, thousands of animals are seized every year. Whilst some animals are found alive, their chances of survival are poor due to harsh transportation conditions and their release in unsuitable environments.