At first glance, the pangolin seems an unlikely candidate for the title of world’s most trafficked animal.
Shy and nocturnal, with small, cone-shaped heads and long, sticky tongues designed to catch their preferred diet of ants and termites, pangolins are covered in rows of overlapping scales not unlike the leaves of an artichoke. Unfortunately for the pangolin, those scales don’t do much to protect it from the poachers that have illegally killed more than 1 million pangolins in the last decade, putting the small mammal at the center of a global illegal wildlife industry worth more than $23 billion annually.
In a year, one pangolin can eat millions of ants and termites. “We call them natural pest controllers. We cannot overemphasize the importance of the pangolin in the ecosystem,” says Olajumoke Morenikej, zoologist at the University of Ibadan in Nigeria, which has become a hotspot of the pangolin trade. Humans, however, prize the pangolin for its scales, which in traditional Chinese medicine are used to treat everything from arthritis to lactation issues to cancer.
“China is the driving force to pangolin trafficking,” says Morenikej. “They have totally and unsustainably exploited their own pangolin species in China, so the focus is now on Africa to get the pangolins they need.”
Trade in pangolins is illegal under international law, and in Nigeria, anyone caught with a pangolin can be fined $12,000 or face prison time. But, according to Chris Hamley of the Environmental Investigation Agency, enforcement of these laws is lax. Meanwhile, the $10 USD a pangolin fetches in a Nigerian bushmeat market is a powerful incentive for hunters looking for a way to feed their families.
“I will thank God,” says one hunter, “because I will use the money to take care of my family...and pay my children’s school fees. That is why we hunt.”
From the bushmeat markets of Africa, pangolin scales are transported by sea to Singapore or Malaysia and then directly to China or into Vietnam, where, Hamley says, they are repackaged into smaller shipments to be smuggled into China alongside legitimate goods.
According to Dr. Song Ke of the Asante Academy of Chinese Medicine, herbs and plants can serve the same function as pangolin scales in traditional Chinese medicine and have a better result, rendering pangolin scales “completely unnecessary.” And in 2020, the Chinese government announced it would remove pangolin from the Traditional Chinese Medicine Pharmacopoeia, the country’s official manual of drugs and their uses.
But Morenikej says that despite this move, the black market in pangolin scales continues. “China has told us that they have removed banned pangolin scales from traditional medicine...but what do we see? It’s just on paper. It is still being used.”
Hamley believes that economics play a factor in the continuing market for pangolin. Traditional Chinese medicine was a $207 billion business in 2021. “With it being such a large industry, there’s a significant profit motive here.”
“If countries were to come together and investigate these groups more closely, we would see more disruption and probably less pangolin trafficking,” says Hamley, “but ultimately, the key aspect is for the demand to be ended.”
And the demand for pangolin remains strong. “Some people get this idea, the more expensive [a cure is], the better,” says Se, “...and people believe that perception.” With all eight pangolin species under threat and two listed as Critically Endangered, it may be that perception that drives the pangolin into extinction.