If you don’t recognize the above creature, you’re not alone—the pangolin doesn’t get the same press as endangered species like elephants and rhinos, and you won’t find “P is for pangolin” in your childhood A to Zs.
But the scaly anteater is as much a victim of illegal wildlife trafficking as its larger mammalian counterpart—more so, in fact—and a worryingly high number of seized pangolin products suggests the future of the species could be in jeopardy.
A report published in Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment by researchers in China and the UK highlights the peril of the “world’s most heavily trafficked CITES-protected mammal contraband.” Species protected by CITES (the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora) are those at risk of over-exploitation through trade.
Pangolins are hunted for their scales, which are a sought-after ingredient in Chinese medicine. The report noted that seizures of pangolin products currently amount to 10,000 animals annually, “but these likely represent only a fraction of the number that reaches the marketplace.” Seizures include scales in quantities of thousands of kilograms and complete animals, both dead and alive—like the 11 tons of pangolin meat discovered on a crashed ship last year.
On top of the fact that pangolins are obscenely cute to start with, the details of how they’re trafficked are particularly heartbreaking. The report outlines how they have a Sonic the Hedgehog–type defense mechanism that tragically only makes them easier to poach. “When sensing danger, they roll into a ball, which can then be conveniently bundled into a sack; thus pangolin contraband is tractable and easily goes unnoticed,” the authors explain.
Unlike elephants and rhinos, they’re also often shipped whole and sometimes alive, which makes dealing with any seizures a tricky affair. If they manage to escape the clutches of traffickers, they often end up being released into inappropriate habitats or euthanized, which obviously doesn’t do much to help the species.
The demand is only going up, with a whole pangolin costing around $200 per kilogram on the black market, an increase of $120 since 2008. Because they only have one offspring a year, it’s difficult for the species to recover from such widespread destruction, and their numbers look only set to decline, which will likely increase demand in turn. Quite simply, it’s unsustainable.
While better policing is one obvious solution to all kinds of animal trafficking, the authors of this report highlight another measure that could help stem the crisis: education. As they write, “Importantly, consumers of pangolin scales are not intrinsically corrupt: they are ordinary citizens—albeit misinformed, often sick or elderly—searching for a traditional remedy.”
Awareness campaigns around ivory—like Jackie Chan’s recent one-to-one with a rhino—seek to quell the demand for animal contraband, but there’s no such superstar movement for the pangolin yet. A lot of consumers probably aren’t even aware of the issues involved.
And as the authors conclude, that’s not only a problem for pangolins. If people are buying pangolins in the hope of curing illness, they’re sadly misinformed, as there’s no evidence the scales have any medical benefit, and so “switching to modern medicine safeguards not only pangolins but also human health."