Environment

Meet the World's Most Poached and Trafficked Mammal

The unique and gentle pangolin is being pushed to extinction due to demand for its meat and scales.


Photo Credit: 2630ben/Shutterstock

Pangolins are beaver-sized, ant-eating mammals found in the tropics and sub-tropics of Africa and Asia. They are the only mammals in the world completely covered by scales, but that isn’t the only thing that makes them unique. Pangolins boast extremely specialized adaptations like super sticky body-length tongues that can slurp up ants and termites rapidly and the ability to roll into an impenetrable ball when threatened. 

They are also mind-bogglingly old as taxon, splitting from their nearest relatives about 87 million years ago. For reference, humans diverged from chimpanzees an estimated 7 to 10 million years ago.

A baby pangolin gets a ride on mom's back (image: Maria Diekmann Rare and Endangered Species Trust via U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service)

It may be surprising to many that, despite their relative obscurity, pangolins are one of the most threatened animals in the world due to demand for their meat and scales. Pangolin scales are used in some Asian cultures as traditional medicine. Their meat is also considered an exotic (and expensive) delicacy in some countries. Demand for pangolins has skyrocketed in recent years, earning these animals the unfortunate distinction of being the most trafficked wild mammal in the world.

In 2016, we saw record seizures of pangolin scales and meat in source countries, transit countries and market countries. Last summer, Hong Kong seized 13.4 metric tons of pangolin scales in three separate seizures originating from Cameroon, Nigeria, and Ghana. In December, China seized its largest shipment of pangolin scales ever (from 3.1 metric tons from Nigeria).

Going back to 2015, IFAW found by simple media searches at least 74 seizures of pangolins and pangolin products totaling about 2,300 whole pangolins (alive or dead), over 7,800 metric tons of frozen pangolin meat, and over 45,000 metric tons of pangolin scales.

This year, the story has not changed. Already, we have seen massive seizures of African pangolin scales in Uganda (5.4 metric tons), Thailand (1 metric ton), and most recently a previously unheard of amount of scales in Hong Kong (7.2 metric tons).

But pangolins are more than just shocking and sad statistics. This walking artichoke with legs is a true living fossil. We, as a conservation community, need to stand up for this amazing and unique creature and stop its current slide down the path of extinction. We need to work together to disrupt pangolin trafficking, protect their habitat, reduce demand for their parts and products, and invest in research.

There are dedicated advocates right now in the African pangolin range countries working to save these critters. The Mentor POP (Progress on Pangolins) program in Cameroon is empowering young Cameroonian scientists to research and advocate for pangolins. The Tikki Hywood Trust in Zimbabwe is rehabilitating and releasing pangolins rescued from traffickers back into the wild, while simultaneously working to preserve wild lands for pangolins and other wildlife species. These are just a few of the great programs that are making a difference

A watershed moment occurred in October at last year’s CITES Conference of Parties in South Africa, where representatives of nearly every country in the world met to vote on international wildlife trade issues. In a near unanimous vote, pangolins were given the highest international trade protections available. Illegal trade has not stopped, but groups like the International Fund for Animal Welfare where I work, and others, are working together to use that momentum to stem the tide.

One approach has been improving laws and the enforcement of laws in pangolin range countries. It is essential to have real consequences in order to stop any kind of wildlife trade, and pangolins are no different. While all pangolin species are now protected from international commercial trade due to CITES, the actual laws at the national level differ widely. Some countries consider pangolin poaching a serious crime while in others it is a minor offense.

And, even if a country has strong laws protecting pangolins, they are often not enforced, resulting in a slap on the wrist for even the worst offenders. It is crucial that range countries not only have serious penalties on the books for poaching pangolins, but that they are enforced as well, creating a real deterrent for trafficking.

Simultaneously, it is imperative that the conservation community work with range country governments and local groups to protect wild spaces for pangolins. Pangolins are wild animals that require natural habitat. They are uniquely unsuitable for life or breeding in captivity, with mortality rates of over 60 percent per year and most wild individuals not surviving past 200 days in captivity. With these kinds of statistics, we must invest in maintaining natural habitat for pangolins so they can continue living in the wild as they have done for millions of years.

Finally, we need to reduce demand for pangolin parts and products. The high price of pangolin scales in consumer countries, based on pangolin scales as an ingredient in Traditional Chinese Medicine, is driving the poaching crisis we see today. IFAW and other groups are working in China, the United States and other consumer countries to raise awareness for the plight of the pangolin, to discourage the use of scales, and to improve the pangolin trafficking laws and law enforcement.

As a biologist and conservationist, I know that the conservation community has a lot on its plate considering today’s politics and myriad environmental ills. One animal that you may never have heard of might not seem like a high priority, but to me, pangolins represent the innocence, complexity, wisdom, and interconnectedness that drew me to nature in the first place.

So let’s save them.

Watch the opening speech from CITES Secretary-General John E. Scanlon to the First Pangolin Range States Workshop:

Mark Hofberg is the assistant campaigns officer in the International Fund for Animal Welfare’s Washington D.C. office. 

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