In the wake of world’s largest ever pangolin scale seizure, new analysis exposes plethora of pangolin trafficking routes

Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, 15th December 2017 — An average of 20 tonnes of pangolins and their parts have been trafficked internationally every year with smugglers using 27 new global trade routes annually, according to new research released today by TRAFFIC and IUCN. 

The report was released in the wake of the world’s largest ever pangolin seizure, when China announced the seizure of 11.9 tonnes of scales from a ship in Shenzen last month.

Known as the world’s most trafficked mammal, all eight (four Asian and four African) species of pangolins are prohibited from international trade under CITES.[1]

The new comprehensive analysis of cross-border pangolin seizures has shown that a combined minimum of 120 tonnes of whole pangolins, parts and scales were confiscated by law enforcement agencies from 2010 to 2015.

Perhaps most striking was the discovery that 159 unique international trade routes were used by traffickers during the six-year study period. By comparison, a previous analysis of CITES trade data found 218 such routes over a 38-year period from 1977–2014.

The latest study by TRAFFIC and the University of Adelaide, reinforces the highly mobile nature of smuggling networks, with traffickers quickly shifting from commonly used routes after a short period and creating many new routes each year.

Additionally, the study found tens of thousands more individual pangolins, parts and scales of unknown weight had also been recovered in the 1,270 international seizure incidents, mostly made by Asian law enforcement agencies.[2]

“This paints a grave picture of a phenomenal quantity of pangolins being trafficked and very nimble traffickers who adapt fast, likely in response to enforcement actions. It shows traders are indiscriminate about the new routes they choose and any legitimate means of transport is fair game for them to exploit,” said Kanitha Krishnasamy, Acting Regional Director for TRAFFIC in Southeast Asia.

The findings in Global Trafficking of Pangolins: A Comprehensive Summary of Seizures and Trafficking Routes from 2010–2015 highlighted the truly global nature of the trade: 67 countries/territories implicated, including those not home to pangolins.

China was the most common destination in terms of large-quantity shipments of pangolin scales while whole pangolins were mostly traded within Asia, with Indonesia seizing the largest volume during the six-year period of the analysis. 

Minor shipments of pangolin body parts mainly went to the U.S., however, the quantities entering the U.S. were not comparable to the massive shipments trafficked through Africa and Asia.

African countries were mostly implicated as the origin, predominantly of scales, heading to Asia. Europe was identified as a major transit hub, mostly for African pangolins being transported to Asia, but also as a destination in the case of the Netherlands and Switzerland.

“This report highlights again the alarming global nature of trafficking in pangolins and their parts, and is particularly concerning because it shows that trafficking takes place through highly mobile networks that use shifting trade routes,” says Daniel Challender, Chair of the IUCN SSC Pangolin Specialist Group and an author of the report. “Concerted action is needed along the entire trafficking routes identified to ensure illegal trade no longer poses a threat to pangolin populations.”   

The report’s authors recommend profiling through intelligence-led investigations by law enforcement agencies to forecast the changing trafficking patterns and put themselves in a more advantageous position to cripple organized criminality.

The report also urges all implicated countries to review laws and increase vigilance of pangolin trafficking, in particular those countries with low numbers of seizures, but implicated in many trafficking incidents.

The authors call for improved and more rigorous reporting of pangolin seizures by all countries in line with CITES requirements, citing incomplete information as an impediment to a more holistic understanding of the roles countries play in the global trafficking of pangolins.

Last month, the 69th CITES Standing Committee concluded that Parties should treat all pangolin specimens and stockpiles as Appendix I specimens, including those obtained when the species were listed in Appendix II. This means that no stockpiled pangolin parts can be legally traded internationally. 

TRAFFIC thanks USAID through the Wildlife Trafficking, Response, Assessment, and Priority Setting Project (Wildlife TRAPS), University of Adelaide, and the Zoo and Aquarium Association (ZAA) for supporting the study.

[1] The Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Fauna and Flora

[2] The study analysed only seizure incidents in which at least one border was already crossed, and not any confiscations made within source countries.



TRAFFIC, the wildlife trade monitoring network, is the leading non-governmental organization working globally on trade in wild animals and plants in the context of both biodiversity conservation and sustainable development. TRAFFIC works closely with its founding organizations, IUCN and WWF, making a critical contribution to the achievement of their conservation goals.

About Wildlife TRAPS

The USAID-funded Wildlife Trafficking, Response, Assessment and Priority Setting (Wildlife TRAPS) Project is an initiative that is designed to secure a transformation in the level of co-operation between an international community of stakeholders who are impacted by illegal wildlife trade between Africa and Asia. The project is designed to increase understanding of the true character and scale of the response required, to set priorities, identify intervention points, and test non-traditional approaches with project partners.


The United States Agency for International Development (USAID) is responsible for the majority of overseas development assistance from the United States Government and works to end extreme poverty and promote resilient, democratic societies while advancing security and prosperity for America and the world.


For further information, contact:

Elizabeth John, Senior Communications Officer for TRAFFIC in Southeast Asia, Tel: 03-7880 3940       Email:

Dr Richard Thomas, TRAFFIC Global Communications Co-ordinator, Tel: +44 1223 331981, Email:

Elaine Paterson, IUCN Media and Communications Officer , Tel: +44 1223 331128, Email:

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