Asian Gangs Mining Africa’s Wildlife

Female Pangolin giving birth during press conference in Bangkok, Thailand, in 2011.

French Seizure Confirms Globalization of Poaching Operations

Female Pangolin giving birth during press conference in Bangkok, Thailand, in 2011.

Female Pangolin giving birth during press conference in Bangkok, Thailand, in 2011.

Freeland congratulates French Customs for seizing endangered animal body parts originating in west Africa en route to Southeast Asia this week, while pointing to the opportunity for Europe to join a new global enforcement effort to arrest and prosecute the world’s biggest wildlife criminals.

The seizure of 50 kilograms of pangolin scales this week at Charles De Gaulle Airport was the 3rd this month by French Customs, representing the deaths of up to 400 pangolins, which are endangered ant-eaters, prized for their meat and skin as food and medicine in Asian black markets.

Freeland has discovered that the lucrative illegal trade in pangolins is run by criminals based in Southeast Asia who are also involved in poaching and trafficking of elephants, primates, tigers, leopards, lions, rhinos, and other rare and endangered species. Freeland has information on the gangs, which it has been sharing with authorities.  One kilogram of dried pangolin scales can fetch 500 USD in Vietnam or China, while one full body can fetch over 2,000 USD.  The shipment seized by the French was en route to Vietnam.

Working with authorities in Asia and Africa, Freeland has discovered that Asian gangs are starting to run out of supply of pangolins, elephants, tigers, and other wild animals in Asia, so they are fast targeting the same or similar species in Africa, including pangolins, which were once abundant across Southeast Asia and China, but are now much harder to find.

In January, the Government of China led and joined police agencies from Southeast and South Asia, Africa, and the United States to launch “Operation Cobra”, which was supported financially and technically by Freeland.  The operation led to numerous arrests and prosecutions, as well as voluminous seizures of pangolins, ivory, big cats, and rhino horn.  The international investigation task force that ran Cobra plans to keep meeting and working together.  Cobra was a new approach to cross border enforcement.  It involved an intensive face-to-face coordination team operating together in a war room in one country, while field teams in 3 continents conducted surveillance against criminals and moved in for arrests and seizures in a concerted fashion.  The investigation team is called the “Special Investigation Group” on global wildlife trafficking, or the “SIG”.

The SIG is government-led and relies on tip-offs, training and other support from Freeland and its partners across Asia and Africa.

“Freeland encourages France and the EU to join future SIG operations,” said Steven Galster, Director of Freeland.  “Team work and information sharing across border and public-private sector lines will put real pressure on these these criminal gangs that are destroying our earth and put them out of business before it’s too late.”

Note to Editors:

Freeland is an international organization dedicated to stopping illegal wildlife trade and human slavery. Freeland works throughout Asia, raising public awareness and building local capacity to protect critical ecosystems, wildlife and vulnerable people. Freeland is the lead implementing partner of the USAID-funded ARREST program. For more information, visit, follow via twitter @freelandpeople or