Africa’s vanishing animals

| September 29, 2019 | 0 Comments
To serve an Asian market, leopards are hunted for their claws and teeth while poisoned lions are hunted for their hacked-off faces and paws. (Photo: Srikaanth Sekar)

To serve an Asian market, leopards are hunted for their claws and teeth while poisoned lions are hunted for their hacked-off faces and paws. (Photo: Srikaanth Sekar)

Note: This is part two in a series of two.

Africa’s animals are being driven towards extinction, largely because of Chinese-sponsored poaching, but also because of rising Indigenous human populations and their pressure on available grazing land. As we saw in my last column (“Killing Off Africa’s Iconic Animals, Summer, 2019) elephants and rhinoceroses are at the greatest risk; poachers are killing both big animals for their tusks and horns. But giraffes, lions, leopards and pangolin, a scaly anteater, are at equal risk.
Asians covet exotic animal parts for jewelry and to provide ingredients for Chinese folk medicine. They even relish boiled up donkey skins, again for medicinal purposes. The result of all of this consumer demand is rapidly diminishing numbers of wild African animals — intense losses that threaten African livelihoods as well as the balance of life across African savannas and rainforests.

Giraffe and okapi

Unlike their taste for boiled up tusks and horns, Chinese do not usually devour parts of the much more numerous ungulates that proliferate on the semi-arid, open woodlands of much of middle Africa. But they do purchase jewelry and other items made from giraffe tails and head horns — flywhisks, good-luck bracelets and strings on which beads are strung. These consumer demands, plus the loss of their favoured habitat because of African population increases, have helped to reduce giraffe numbers appreciably, from 165,000 in 1985 to 97,000 today. Zebra numbers are also declining, as are some of the larger antelopes such as eland and hartebeest.
The International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) calls the dramatic plunge in giraffe numbers a “silent extinction.” It elaborates on three drivers towards extinction, one being illegal hunting — largely for bush meat. The second is civil wars in such places as the Democratic Republic of Congo (where the okapi sub-species of giraffe lives), South Sudan and the Central African Republic. The third is habitat degradation caused by climate change and the eradication of acacia trees to make way for expanding agricultural settlements. Giraffes graze primarily on the leaves of acacia and mimosa trees, eat seeds and buds from the same trees and consume hundreds of pounds of such herbivorous fodder each week.
Lions and leopards

The Chinese purchase jewelry and other items made from giraffe tails and head horns. (Photo: Miroslav Duchacek)

The Chinese purchase jewelry and other items made from giraffe tails and head horns. (Photo: Miroslav Duchacek)

Lions are being poached in a serious manner for the first time. The kings of the jungle are being killed so that their faces and paws can be hacked off and shipped along with rhino horns and elephant tusks to Asia. Mozambique, South Africa, Zimbabwe, Tanzania and Uganda have all reported depredations of this kind, and the wanton practice may also have spread to Kenya and Botswana. As it happens, it is far easier to poach lions (despite their feared reputations) than elephants or rhinoceroses. Lions scavenge, so poachers need only snare an antelope, poison the carcass and wait. There are more poachers than game rangers, too. In one park in Mozambique, there are at least a dozen separate lion-poaching syndicates.
Once poisoned with Aldicarb or other common pesticides, the paws and face are easy to cut off the dead lion and are jointly worth about $2,000 to $4,000 to the poachers. In Asia, the claws and teeth become pendants and other forms of jewelry. On a regular Chinese online purchasing site, anyone can order a lion tooth pendant for $126. Sometimes lion bones are also taken for use in traditional African religious ceremonies and magic or, in Asia, as substitutes for increasingly rare tiger bones. The lion bones can be used to make (fake) tiger bone wine; it treats various ailments and is said to give drinkers “the strength of a tiger.” But bones are harder to carry and smuggle than faces and claws. Transported to China, Vietnam and Malaysia together with tusks and horns, these lion parts may just be another way of making money now that there are fewer rhinos and that the remaining rhinos are much better protected than before.
Leopards can also be hunted for their claws and teeth, and for the same ultimate Asian uses. As elusive and often singular animals, they might be thought to be spared poaching and habitat loss, but leopards can also be tempted by poisoned carcasses and threatened by villagers who blame them for losses of sheep or goats. The IUCN classifies African leopards as “vulnerable.”

Chinese consumers also lust after the meat, scales and other body parts of the four pangolin species that are found in Africa and rarely ever glimpsed by tourists or African farmers. Three of these four species of scaly anteaters live in the deep forests of Cameroon, the Central African Republic, Equatorial Guinea, Gabon and the two Congos; the tree-dwelling, white-bellied and black-bellied pangolins each weigh as much as a small rabbit, up to 3.1 kilograms. Temnick’s ground-dwelling pangolin is much larger and heavier, weighing up to 11 kilograms. It is found across the savanna in a dozen countries.
A pangolin is a very slow-moving anteater, covered with hundreds of armoured scales made of keratin. Nocturnal, it spends its life searching for its favourite food, sometimes in trees swinging from long tails, but also keeping a low profile along the ground to avoid predators. Pangolin dig 27-metre-long burrows and can even swim across rivers to escape attackers. They use their long claws to tear apart insect nests. Then they feed by sticking tongues longer than their 48-centimetre bodies deep into the nests to acquire various kinds of ants and termites. Researchers estimate that a single pangolin can consume 70 million insects a year, thus helping to regulate insect numbers.
There may be more than 600,000 pangolins ridding Africa of ants annually, and thus nothing to worry about. But we do not really know how many pangolin exist and, at the rapid rate that pangolin skins and scales are being seized at African ports, they may soon be gone. They are among the most heavily trafficked wild animals in the world. Moreover, it is likely that customs and other port officials are blocking the export of all but a tiny fraction of pangolins trafficked out of Africa, en route to Asia. One detailed study of 100 areas in forested Africa over almost 40 years discovered that at least 400,000 pangolins are hunted annually for their meat and for export. Asians are buying pangolin directly from local hunters in places such as Gabon.
The poaching process is dead easy. For millenniums, when attacked, pangolin rolled up into a tight ball, protected by their impenetrable scales. That procedure worked until now against predator animals. But poachers simply pick up the conveniently arranged pangolin and carry them away to be killed. More than 300 a day are killed.
Pangolin meat (there are critically endangered Asian species, also) is considered a delicacy in southern China. Pangolin scales are prized as an ingredient in traditional Chinese medicines. When WildAid surveyed Chinese consumers, 70 per cent believed that pangolin meat and other products could cure rheumatism and skin diseases if mixed into a wine or taken as a powder. Pangolin penises possess aphrodisiacal properties, or so many Asians believe. All three products are easy to find in shops in Hong Kong, as well as in major mainland Chinese cities. Nearly four grams of pangolin scales was worth $38 in Hong Kong markets in mid-2019. Sometimes merchants grind the scales into powder, the better to avoid detection and the better to blend into medicinal soups.

The smugglers
In July 2019, Nigerian officials confiscated nearly a tonne of pangolin scales destined for China. Early in 2019, Hong Kong officials found 360 kilograms of pangolin scales secreted along with US$1 million worth of purloined mobile telephones and digital cameras. The scales had a street value of about US$300,000. A few months before, the same sleuths intercepted 8.1 metric tonnes of scales — the biggest haul ever recorded — on its way from Nigeria to Vietnam. In mid-2019, an even larger shipment was confiscated. Singaporean authorities discovered containers holding 12 metric tonnes of pangolin scales that also came from Nigeria and were being transshipped to Vietnam.
Between 2013 and 2017, inspectors in Hong Kong — the gateway to southern China — confiscated 39 metric tonnes of pangolin carcasses and scales, representing probably tens of thousands of animals. They had arrived primarily from Cameroon and Nigeria. The UN Office of Drugs and Crime reported that the Hong Kong confiscations represented almost 50 per cent of the pangolin products seized globally in just three years. The amounts of pangolin collected by the authorities went on to double between 2017 and 2018. The traffic in pangolins is clearly massive and profitable. And, in terms of the usual concerns for illegal ivory- and rhino-horn smuggling, the pangolin commerce crawls under most radar.

Domestic donkeys
Donkeys, the mainstay of rural transport in at least two dozen countries across the continent, are now in high demand in China. There is widespread fear in a number of African countries that if Chinese merchants keep bidding up prices for African donkeys, none will remain in five years. These are domesticated and hardly wild animals, but for centuries they have been a fixture fundamental to upward mobility for Indigenous subsistence farmers and traders. Indeed, donkeys were first domesticated centuries ago in Africa. Donkeys are adept at drawing heavy loads and are easy to handle.
Ethiopia is estimated to have seven million donkeys, more than any other nation across the globe. Another six million exist in a variety of other African nations. But, because of Chinese tastes and beliefs, African donkeys are now worth more dead than alive.
Thanks to strong new Chinese demand, dedicated slaughterhouses for donkeys have been constructed, often financed by China, in Botswana, Ethiopia, Kenya, Namibia and Niger. In some countries, donkey hides now fetch $500 each; a decade ago $100 would have been a welcome price.
In Kenya, the donkey population has fallen in the last decade by more than 30 per cent, from 1.8 million to 1.2 million animals. There are three licensed slaughterhouses in Kenya. In 2018 and 2019, they were butchering 1,000 or so donkeys a day to supply skins and meat to China. The returns at the slaughterhouses are so appealing that thieves began rustling donkeys and driving them illegally to slaughterhouses; in Kenya, at least, there is a thriving black market in donkeys — all to satisfy Chinese tastes.
This intensified demand and the high prices now common in the donkey trade have driven governments in Niger and Burkina Faso to ban the export of donkey skins to China. Twelve other African nations, including Botswana, Ethiopia, the Gambia, Ghana, Malawi, Mali, Nigeria, Senegal, Tanzania, Uganda, Zambia and Zimbabwe have also closed their specialized slaughterhouses or prohibited any sale of donkey hides or remains beyond their borders, especially to China.
Most of the skins and other donkey remains nevertheless travel across the sea to end up in an otherwise unprepossessing eastern Chinese county called Dong’e, situated on the left bank of the Yellow River, 100 kilometres upstream from Jinan, the capital of Shandong Province.
Dong’e is where nearly all of the world’s ejiao — a gelatin boiled down from donkeys — is now made from four million skins a year. Supposed curative powers once again drive demand. Consuming ejiao, billboards shout, will guarantee long lives, help lose weight and boost energy. It is often prescribed to fix urinary, gynecological, cardiovascular and other complaints, and has been a folk remedy for hundreds of years. It is hyped as a cancer preventer. As a blood tonic and thinner, it supposedly fixes anemia, removes acne and improves libido. As a supposed wellness product for the rising middle classes, it can be purchased as a face cream, a candy, or even a liqueur. As Africa is denuded of donkeys, Chinese consumers presumably feel a spurious rise in their sense of health.

What can be done?
Chinese and Vietnamese authorities know that the massive poaching trade continues alongside the even larger import of donkey hides. They ought to be able to stop it, or at least slow the loss of African lions, leopards and pangolin and perhaps the taking of donkeys. Unfortunately, China has yet to educate its consumers to disdain the African animal components of traditional medicine. Too many now middle-class and wealthy Chinese (and Vietnamese) believe that ground-up animal horns, skins and private parts will convey strength. And jewelry made from African animals flaunts prosperity. A Chinese crackdown on Asian demand is the only way to turn back the threat of silent extinction. Africa’s animals will continue to vanish unless Asian governments stifle consumer demand.

Robert I. Rotberg is the founding director of Harvard Kennedy School’s program in intrastate conflict, president emeritus of the World Peace Foundation and a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. His latest book is The Corruption Cure. (Princeton, 2017)

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Category: Dispatches

About the Author ()

Robert I. Rotberg is Fulbright Research Professor at the Norman Paterson School of International Affairs, Carleton University and a senior fellow at the Centre for International Governance Innovation.

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