Pangolins—the painfully-cute, scale-covered creatures that are the most trafficked mammals on the planet—are now one of the world's most protected species.
Nations that agree to the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES), an international treaty to protect endangered plants and animals, voted Wednesday to add all eight species of pangolins to the Appendix I listing—the category for the most endangered species that enforces the strictest limitations. That means that all international commercial trade of pangolins is now banned.
"This decision will help give pangolins a fighting chance," Susan Lieberman, the vice president of international policy for the Wildlife Conservation Society, said in a press release. "The world is standing up for the little guy with this pivotal decision for greater protection of the pangolin."
Pangolins are poached for their scales, which are used in Chinese medicine, and for their meat, which is considered a delicacy in some parts of the world. But this demand has meant that more than 1 million pangolins have been poached over the last 10 years. Conservationists say it's difficult to estimate how many are left in the wild, but their population may have dropped as much as 90 percent. Every species of pangolin is listed as either Critically Endangered, Endangered or Vulnerable by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (the world's biggest conservation organization).
And it's clear these little guys are becoming increasingly rare, because their value on the poaching market has climbed: the price of pangolin scales in China has increased 250 percent in the last five years, according to the Natural Resources Defense Council.
At the CITES Conference of the Parties, which happens every three years and gives member parties the chance to vote on changes to the treaty, members voted to upgrade the protection for these highly-trafficked creatures.
CITES had previously listed pangolins under Appendix II, which gives a lot of protection and limits trade, but doesn't ban it completely. Appendix I is the strictest protection for any species. It means international trade is banned, unless the species is captive bred (or in a handful of exceptional circumstances), and even then traders need to have import and export permits. Only the world's most imperiled species, like rhinos and gorillas, are listed under Appendix I, which shows how dire conservationists believe the pangolins' prospects currently are.
Of course, making poaching more difficult doesn't make it impossible and there's still a lot of work to do to keep pangolins from disappearing. But under the umbrella of the strongest legal protection available, at least pangolins now have a chance of survival.