By Our reporter
Police in Nwoya district in Northern Uganda have arrested a husband and his wife over pangolin worth Shs251 million (USD70,000). The scales weighed 25 kilograms.
Pangolins are one of the rarest animal species not only in Uganda but the world over.
The suspects who were identified as Francis Okello and Ms Consy Lamwaka are all residents of Kochgoma Sub County in Nwoya district they were arrested by police on Wednesday in a crackdown that was mounted by officials from Natural Resource Conservation Network (NRCN) after they were found searching for the market of pangolin scales weighing 25 kilograms.
Pangolin are known for their scaly exterior, peculiar body shape and propensity for rolling into an armoured ball when threatened. Pangolins in Uganda are mostly found in Northern Uganda and since they are rare species, if not preserved and conserved, they risk extinction.
They are scaly creatures with beady eyes, narrow snouts and they have long tails which are not without whimsy, their scales, skin, and meat are all highly valued, making it the most illegal traded animal in the wild, according to International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN).
Police from Nwoya together with investigators of NRCN mounted a crackdown after a tipoff from informers. They went to Kochgoma and arrested a couple at their home in Kochgoma in Nwoya district while in possession of the scaly pangolin.
According to the Nwoya District Police Commander, Mr. Dan Okello, he confirmed that the suspects were arrested from Kochgoma sub-county where they are residents and were later brought to Nwoya Central Police Station to help police investigate the illegal possession of wildlife body parts from a pangolin – one of the rarest animals in the country.
The district police boss added that the suspect was charged under CRB614/2016 for being in possession of wildlife body parts and that the suspects shall appear before court on Friday.
However, since the arrest was done on Wednesday at Kochgoma, the police in Kochgoma Sub County registered it under SD/34/24/08/16.
Mr. Vincent Opyene, the Chief Executive Officer of Natural Resource Conservation Network (NRCN) said they deployed undercover crime busters, backed by the police in Nwoya to have the suspects arrested.
“The duo were found in possession of pangolin scales weighing 25 kilograms and were looking for market,” he said.
Arrests and seizures of poached pangolins, while overshadowed by elephants and rhino poaching, have made recent headlines. In 2015, Uganda Wildlife Authority (UWA) announced the seizure of two tons of pangolin skins discovered in boxes at the Entebbe International Airport, a key transit centre for the illegal wildlife trade in Central Africa.
Elephants and rhinoceroses often serve as the poster animals for the illegal trade in wildlife and they killed for the ivory in its tusks, the rhino for its horn.
Pangolins live in bushes where it is easier for them to amble through the leaves and underbrush, sniffing with the long noses for security reasons and they feed on insects.
But the most frequently trafficked mammal, wildlife experts say, is a far less familiar creature: the pangolin, an insectivore with a tongue longer than its body and a tail so powerful it can hang upside down from tree branches.
Pangolin meat is considered a delicacy in parts of China, where it is believed to nourish the kidneys. Pangolin scales, made of keratin, like human fingernails, are used in traditional medicine to treat skin diseases and other ailments.
According to the head of Natural Resource Conservation Network, an organization that monitors illegal wildlife trade in the country, Mr. Opyene, he says, “The demand for pangolins has grown sharply in recent decades,” adding that, “Poaching has increased not only in Southeast Asia but also in African countries such as Uganda and Democratic Republic of Congo.”
Customs officers seize thousands of pangolins and hundreds of pounds of pangolin scales each year, often disguised as other goods. While in countries such as; Indonesia, Vietnam and China, they put pangolin scales in ships where they are labeled as frozen fish.
Mr. Opyene urges government and other stakeholders to be pay more attention to these rare species like pangolin, adding that government should put in place laws that prohibit the hunting of pangolins.
However, it is commonly known that Uganda has good laws but enforcement is often weak, and the incentive for local poachers in poor rural areas to catch and sell pangolins and other wildlife to middlemen for smuggling organizations is strong.
In response to the pangolin’s plight, numerous campaigns have been launched to raise awareness, including the SavePangolins organisation and an app, Roll with the Pangolins, which was endorsed by British royal Prince William in his role as President of United for Wildlife.
He said last year, “The pangolin runs the risk of becoming extinct before most people have even heard of them.”
Many conservation groups are mounting efforts to rescue the pangolin in advance of the 2016 meeting of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora.
Pangolins are listed under the convention’s Appendix II as animals that are not yet threatened with extinction but may become so. WildAid and other organizations argue that pangolins should be moved to Appendix I, which prohibits all commercial trade.
The demand for pangolin meat as a delicacy is high among the newly affluent in parts of China and in Vietnam, while the animal’s scales have been used for centuries in Traditional Chinese Medicine for unproven health benefits. In Asian countries, pangolin’s meat is a delicacy that can bring over Shs500,000 an equivalent of ($150) in restaurants.
The poaching of wildlife animals like pangolin, rhino and elephants has ascended highly across the continent of Africa over the past four years and this is fuelled by the rising demand in Asia for products coveted as a traditional medicine and or as status symbols.
This has forced Uganda to be a key transit country for the illegal trade of wildlife, especially from Democratic Republic of Congo’s huge central African forests and the sub-Saharan trans-frontier parks.