Taking Pangolins Off the Menu

At least this one got away.

Photograph: AFP/Getty Images

The latest poster mammal in the struggle against environmental crimes is something called a pangolin. Cute and scaly, it is no match for the criminal gangs that have made it one of the most trafficked animals for bogus medicines and gourmet meals.

A recent report from the United Nations and Interpol highlights the sophistication of this new breed of criminals, and the difficulty and necessity of fighting them. Their interlinked networks connect local resources to global markets in surprising ways -- South African street gangs, for instance, trading illegally caught abalone for methamphetamine from Asian syndicates. Rebel groups such as Sudan’s Janjaweed, Uganda’s Lord’s Resistance Army and Colombia’s FARC use “taxes” and revenue from such underground commerce to fund their mayhem. Illicitly harvested timber and fish are increasingly blended into legal commercial streams with false permits and certifications, feeding corruption.

More money and manpower would certainly help in this fight, but better coordination and intelligence-sharing can also make a huge difference. Tactics used successfully against drug traffickers -- controlled deliveries of wildlife to nab distributors and bosses instead of just poachers and foot soldiers, for instance -- could be more aggressively applied. So could existing UN conventions to pursue cross-border investigations and prosecutions. Initiatives such as the Container Control Program, which has tightened screening of the nearly half-billion shipping containers shuttling around the world, could benefit from more support. So could civil society groups that have pioneered the use of smartphones, commercial satellite imagery and other technology to turn ordinary citizens into real-time watchdogs.

Curbing demand also helps. China’s announcement that it would join the U.S. in all but banning the ivory trade is good news for threatened elephants and rhinos. And while there is much controversy over China’s wildlife law encouraging the farming and harvesting of endangered species -- some research suggests doing so might just encourage illicit demand, but the practice could also increase supply, thus making endangered species less so -- it needn’t deter China from pursuing other strategies. It should back media campaigns to persuade the public to cut down on delicacies such as shark-fin soup, a side dish with drastic consequences for the marine ecosystem, or to forego dubious medical treatments based on animal parts, such as Vietnam’s use of rhino horn to treat cancer.

It’s not necessary to buy into all the report’s assumptions or methodology -- it lumps wildlife trafficking, illegal logging and fishing, and illicit shipments of hazardous chemicals together, and guesstimates the annual toll at up to $258 billion -- to see the value of fighting this kind of crime. What is it worth to the planet to save the anteater? Whatever the answer, it has little to do with what a poacher could make by driving it to extinction.

Ultimately, of course, the best way to curb environmental crimes -- whether against endangered species, high-seas fisheries or primeval forests -- is to encourage economic development and the improvements in governance, rule of law and property rights that come with it. That won’t make for a cute video, but in the long run, it may be the pangolin’s best hope.

To contact the senior editor responsible for Bloomberg View’s editorials: David Shipley at davidshipley@bloomberg.net.