Demand for scales, meat, and even fetuses of pangolins have pushed all eight species of this unique mammalian order—Pholidota—toward extinction, according to the world’s first ever pangolin conference with the International Union for Conservation of Nature – Species Survival Commission (IUCN-SSC) Pangolin Specialist Group. Meeting in Singapore earlier this month, 40 conservationists from 14 countries discussed the plight of these little-known scaly mammals and how to turn around their global decline.
Although known as ‘scaly anteaters,’ pangolins are actually a group of termite-eating mammals that stand alone: according to genetics, their closest relatives are not anteaters, but carnivores. Nocturnal and shy, these mammals have long been elusive to scientists. But across much of East Asia, pangolins are in high demand. Although trading them is illegal, their scales are used in traditional Chinese medicine; their meat is openly sold; and even their fetuses are eaten in a soup delicacy.
“They are more than likely the most traded wild mammals globally,” explains Dan Challender, Co-Chair of the IUCN-SSC Pangolin Specialist Group with the Durrell Institute of Conservation and Ecology, University of Kent. “Following huge declines in populations of the Chinese pangolin, trade has mainly involved the Sunda pangolin in recent years, which occurs across Southeast Asia, but pangolins are now being sourced from South Asia and as far as Africa to meet demand in East Asia.”
Sunda pangolin listed as Endangered in Borneo. Photo by: Piekfrosch/GNU Free Documentation License.
Four species of pangolin are found in Asia and four in Africa. Both the Chinese and Sunda pangolin are listed as Endangered by the IUCN Red List, while the other six species are in lower categories. Still, new evidence presented at the meeting will likely place the other six species in higher-risk categories as well.
Experts at the meeting noted that law enforcement and sentencing must be stepped up to deal with the crisis.
“Enforcement efforts should not end at seizures—they are only the first of several steps needed to dismantle wildlife smuggling rings,” Chris R. Shepherd, Director of Southeast Asia TRAFFIC, an organization that works to fight the global wildlife trade. “Agencies must be proactive, weeding out the ringleaders behind smuggling operations and putting them out of business. Investigators and prosecutors must also prepare thoroughly so that when cases are presented in court they are strong enough for the judge to make a ruling fitting the crime.”
Worryingly, findings at the conference showed that the Chinese pangolin was already likely extinct in China, although still found in other parts in Asia.
“Not only do we need to reduce demand for pangolin parts in East Asia, we also need to ensure there are pangolin strongholds where we can ensure the viability of populations in the wild,” said Professor Jonathan Baillie, Conservation Programmes Director at the Zoological Society of London (ZSL) and Co-Chair of the IUCN-SSC Pangolin Specialist Group.
Experts have estimated that the global illegal wildlife trade is now worth $19 billion and is decimating species worldwide, including charismatic animals like elephants, tigers, rhinos, and sharks, as well as thousands of lesser-known species.
The World’s Pangolin Species
Indian pangolin (Manis crassicaudata), Near Threatened
Philippine pangolin (Manis culionensis), Near Threatened
Chinese pangolin (Manis pentadactyla), Endangered
Sunda pangolin (Manis javanica), Endangered
Giant pangolin (Manis gigantea), Least Concern
Ground pangolin (Manis temminckii), Least Concern
Tree pangolin (Manis tricuspis), Near Threatened
Long-tailed pangolin (Manis tetradactyla), Least Concern
(02/11/2013) Last year tens-of-thousands of elephants and hundreds of rhinos were butchered to feed the growing appetite of the illegal wildlife trade. This black market, largely centered in East Asia, also devoured tigers, sharks, leopards, turtles, snakes, and hundreds of other animals. Estimated at $19 billion annually, the booming trade has periodically captured global media attention, even receiving a high-profile speech by U.S. Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton, last year. But the biggest mammal victim of the wildlife trade is not elephants, rhinos, or tigers, but an animal that receives little notice and even less press: the pangolin. If that name doesn’t ring a bell, you’re not alone.
(04/15/2013) What do you do when you’re smuggling 22,000 pounds of an endangered species on your boat? Answer: crash into a protected coral reef in the Philippines. Last Monday a Chinese vessel slammed into a coral reef in the Tubbataha National Marine Park; on Saturday the Filipino coastguard discovered 400 boxes of pangolin meat while inspecting the ship. Pangolins, which are scaly insect-eating mammals, have been decimated by the illegal wildlife trade as their scales are prized in Chinese Traditional Medicine and their meat is considered a delicacy.
(09/25/2012) Scaly, insect-devouring, nocturnal, and notoriously shy, pangolins are strange mammals who remain unknown to many. But they are facing a major crisis as they are stolen from the wild in East Asia to serve as meat or traditional medicine. In Asia, two of the four species are now listed as Endangered due largely to poaching. Now, a new expert group through the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) aims to work toward better research and conservation of the world’s imperiled pangolins, starting with launching a new website, PangolinSG.
(08/06/2012) Earlier this summer, 110 Sunda pangolins (Manis javanica) were rescued by Thai customs officials from poachers in a pickup truck. While the driver of the vehicle escaped, a passenger was arrested, but released after paying a fine of $75,000, reports the NGO FREELAND Foundation.
(01/24/2012) You can buy pretty much anything on the internet: from Rugby team garden gnomes to Mickey Mouse lingerie. In some places, consumers have even been able to purchase illegal wildlife parts, such as ivory and rhino horn. In fact, the internet has opened up the black market wildlife trade contributing to the destruction of biodiversity worldwide. Pangolins, shy, scaly, anteater-like animals in appearance, have not been immune: in Asia the small animals are killed en masse to feed rising demand for Chinese traditional medicine, placing a number of species on the endangered list.