Paul Ash, Sunday Times Daily | May 25, 2021
A 10-year prison term handed down to a local pangolin poacher last week has made the record books as the harshest sentence ever handed down to anyone trading in the critically endangered animal.
Orateng Mekwe, a South African citizen, received the sentence for trading in pangolins, while his accomplice, Jealous Rungano, a Zimbabwean citizen, was sentenced to three months’ imprisonment and deportation after serving time.
The case dates back to 2019 when members of the Cullinan Stock Theft & Endangered Species Unit, assisted by other police and the Green Scorpions, and members of the African Pangolin Working Group conducted a sting operation in which a pangolin was offered for sale to an undercover agent.
Two of the suspects were later released due to lack of evidence, said Prof Ray Jansen, chairperson and founder of the African Pangolin Working Group.
“It is a groundbreaking sentence that sets a precedent not only for SA but also for Africa,” he said.
According to the national Environmental Management Biodiversity Act, trafficking in endangered wildlife such as pangolins has a penalty of 10 years in jail or a R10m fine.
But this is the first time the jail term has been handed down, said Jansen.
The case involved the sale of a female pangolin that was badly dehydrated and malnourished. Despite emergency care at the Johannesburg Wildlife Veterinary Hospital, the pangolin died a few days after being rescued.
Jansen, who has been to court to argue for aggravation of sentence, said one of the keys to getting harsher sentences for poachers lay in educating the courts on the way forward.
Some 38 pangolins were known to have been poached during the pandemic as people looked for other ways to make money.
“The pandemic has had a real knock-on effect with poaching,” he said.
In 2017, 46 animals were recovered, said Jansen. He was concerned, however, that only a small number of traffickers were being caught and that it was difficult to estimate the size of the trade.
The sentence raised the question of the economic worth of pangolins, said Michael ’t Sas-Rolfes, a researcher with the Oxford Martin programme on wildlife trade.
“We need to ask what kind of crime is this,” he said. “If it is an economic crime then [the sentence] needs to be based on the value of whatever has been lost.”
He noted, however, that some people argued the crime was more than an economic crime because pangolins were sentient beings with feelings and interests.
The main difficulty was to determine just penalties for traffickers and poachers, said ’t Sas-Rolfes, adding there was a risk of a backlash if the required evidence to secure a conviction was lacking.
“It’s a known fact that the more punishment for a crime, the better evidence the judge requires,” he said.
Jansen had had to apply for permission from the National Prosecuting Authority to set up the sting operation.
“Otherwise [the cases] could get thrown out of court,” he said.
African pangolins are highly sought-after in traditional Chinese medicine, where their scales are used in an ingredient in dozens of remedies.
There are as many as 60 commercial remedies that include crushed pangolin scales in the ingredients, said Jansen.
“There are operations that manufacture the medicines on an industrial scale,” he said.
In an attempt to clamp down on the trade, the Chinese government recently raised the pangolin protection status from level two to one, the same as the iconic panda bear.
While Jansen praised Chinese officials for taking the “huge step”, he noted there is a loophole in that any patented medicine is not subject to the same restrictions.
Still, he was positive that the fight against pangolin poachers would succeed.
“If you look that whole pangolins have entered everybody’s living rooms [on TV] and see that 140 scientists are working on pangolins, that’s positive news.”