POGOs and Pangolins
Last August a pangolin was spotted clinging to a fence above three baying dogs in a residential suburb of Alabang in the Philippines. The neighbours alerted the authorities, who put it in a bin in a darkened room and sent it back to the Palawan archipelago on a Cebu Pacific Airbus. In 2018 a pangolin wandered onto a golf course. It was trapped by caddies and handed over to the authorities but later died. The same year, a man tried to sell a live pangolin on a street corner in Binondo, where he’d arranged to meet a buyer. But he approached the wrong man and found himself in a tussle with a small crowd trying to make a citizen’s arrest. In the confusion, the pangolin – as far it’s possible for a short-limbed, tree-climbing anteater – legged it down the pavement.
Around twenty pangolins have been ‘retrieved’ by the authorities in and around Manila in the last few years. Since the only part of the country where the animals are found in the wild is Palawan, some four hundred miles away, the strong inference is that they were all destined for dinner plates in the capital, where over the last decade a sizable consumer market grew up among Chinese tourists and employees of offshore gambling firms, or POGOs.
President Duterte introduced the Philippine Offshore Gaming Operators model for online casinos in 2016. Swathes of office space in Manila were rented out to POGOs: desks for software engineers and account managers; booths for women in strapless dresses and bowties who would spin roulette wheels on a live stream for punters in China. The business was a major boon to the real estate sector, and brought in almost $380 million in tax revenue in 2018 alone. At the industry’s height, more than 300,000 Chinese workers moved to the Philippines to take up jobs in offshore gambling companies.
It wasn’t long before police investigations were linking the POGO industry to kidnapping, drug dealing networks, sex and labour trafficking, largescale money laundering, and the illegal wildlife trade. Seizures of pangolin scales increased ninefold between 2018 and 2020.
POGOs were curtailed in 2020, in part by rising scandal, but mostly by Covid. Faced with the prospect of being locked down away from their families indefinitely, or enduring grim spells in quarantine if they wanted to visit, many of the POGO workers chose to sit out the pandemic at home in China.
POGOs aren’t the only gambling scandal the Philippines has endured in recent years. Among the many important issues that the incoming president, Ferdinand ‘Bongbong’ Marcos, refused to be drawn on during his campaign is what he would do about online cockfighting. Since the middle of last year, 34 people connected to the industry have disappeared (presumed dead), in what appear to be revenge killings by criminal syndicates over match-fixing.
Cockfighting (sabong) has been a huge spectator gambling event in the Philippines for hundreds of years. Before the pandemic, stadiums would be crammed with tens of thousands of punters as birds, with a blustery grace and knives strapped to their legs, fought to the death. When the business went online during the ban on social gatherings, the most popular platform turned over as much as $50 million a day.
The explosion of organised crime under his administration was at odds with Duterte’s extremely vivid position on law and order. He promised to eradicate crime by eradicating criminals – primarily those selling shabu, or methamphetamine. ‘Please feel free to call us, the police,’ he said on the campaign trail in 2016, ‘or do it yourself, if you have the gun: you have my support.’ Voters told pollsters they liked him because he meant what he said, and unfortunately for the thirty thousand people murdered in the drug wars, he often did.
The new government is harder to read. The new vice-president is Duterte’s daughter, Sara, which promises some continuity with the most macho, strategically ineffectual, but politically savvy aspects of her father’s approach. (As mayor of Davao, she punched an official in the face because he refused to delay demolition of a slum.) While one of Duterte Sr’s last acts in office was to suspend e-sabong operations, Marcos has been muted on what the future holds. One of his first acts after being elected was to visit the grave of his father, the kleptocratic dictator deposed in 1986.
The rapid boom of the offshore gambling sector in the Philippines follows a regional pattern, driven by Chinese wealth. Beijing forbids gambling in mainland China and countries in South-East Asia have jostled to offer extraterritorial opportunities – and more. Borderland casinos have all the regular criminal remora markets (sex, drugs, thugs) as well as ivory products (their sale is now banned in China) and other wildlife for ornament, cure or consumption on sale to casino tourists. Alvin Camba, a political scientist at the University of Denver, argues that many offshore gambling outfits in the Philippines were transnational money laundering scams: rich Chinese clients would arrange to ‘lose’ massive amounts in bets, which casino owners would funnel to offshore accounts for them, or launder through other black markets.
As markets catering to a Chinese gambling clientele have sprung up, they have attracted a host of problems (including the ire of China) and tighter regulations have usually followed. This has led to a regional game of whack-a-mole. The POGO boom followed a crackdown in Cambodia, which itself had sucked up the traffic diverted by a clean-up in Macau. Every government that invites this gambling bonanza is making its own wager: tax revenue and tourist renminbi in exchange for criminal risk.
Duterte didn’t create any of the illicit economies around shabu, poaching, e-sabong or offshore gambling. POGOs were already operating clandestinely before he gave them a legal vehicle in 2016, and the upswing in pangolin poaching in Palawan is also connected to the growing demand for scales for traditional Chinese medicine that has affected both Asia and Africa. All illicit economies in the Philippines occur with a degree of complicity from police and politicians, enmeshed in decades of oligarchic control, a situation Duterte manoeuvred within rather than crafted. But over the last six years, several illicit industries were courted, tolerated or fattened, while independent state oversight, journalism and civil society were sapped.
In the wild, pangolins are cautious, meek and elusive, among the reasons they were once so poorly studied and so infrequently filmed in their natural habitat. ‘Pangolins are very gentle,’ a young fisherman in Palawan told me, ‘and do not bite.’ During the months when the sea was too stormy to sail he would turn to poaching, climbing tall trees on moonless nights for buyers from Manila. ‘When you grab them, they just accept what is happening.’ But the escaped pangolins in Manila, almost as if they knew what awaited them, put up one last act of resistance.