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It’s World Pangolin Day!

  • Pangolins are the world’s most trafficked animal.
  • Populations of all eight species of pangolins are vulnerable, endangered or critically endangered, mainly due to the demand for their meat and scales.
  • Hopefully, increased protection and attention will give these animals a chance to bounce back from near-extinction.

It’s time to celebrate World Pangolin Day — again.

Today, February 18, is dedicated to the armor-clad mammals that resemble giant pine cones. Some might know them as scaly anteaters that eat, well ants, and termites. But does the pangolin, believed to be the world’s most trafficked mammal, have a reason to cheer?

Just earlier this month, Thailand authorities displayed three metric tons of pangolin scales that they had seized since December. The scales, worth more than $800,000, were estimated to have come from 6,000 pangolins originating from Africa.

There were several other large seizures.

In January, officials seized eleven metric tons of pangolin scales from Cameroon and Tanzania being exported to Asia. Around Christmas, Shanghai Customs seized over three metric tons of scales, while Cameroonian customs seized over half a metric tons of scales being exported from central Africa for Malaysia. Conservationists estimate that more than 20,000 pangolins were likely killed for these 14.5 metric tons of scales.

Unfortunately, the illegal pangolin trade shows no sign of abatement.

Tree pangolin (Manis tricuspis) in central Democratic Republic of the Congo. Photo by Valerius Tygart licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0.

Estimates by the Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA) suggest that nearly two million pangolins may have been traded over the past 16 years, a figure that they say represents only the tip of the iceberg.

“Trafficking in such large quantities occurring on an international scale highlights the organised nature of this illegal trade which is proving increasingly profitable to wildlife traffickers,” the EIA writes on their website.

The demand for pangolin scales comes mainly from China and Vietnam. People believe that the scales have medicinal properties, capable of promoting menstruation and lactation, and treating rheumatism and arthritis. But none of these claims have been proven.

China even has a legal annual quota of 25 metric tons of pangolin scales that can be used in traditional Chinese medicine in over 700 registered hospitals. These scales must be from verified stockpiles or from legal African imports. But a recent survey by TRAFFIC, the wildlife trade monitoring network, found that much of the scales were being sold illegally.

Pangolin scales, just like human fingernails and hair, and rhino horns, are largely made of keratin. Unfortunately, the hard, armor-like scales that are meant to shield these animals from predators have become the main reason for their collapse.

Pangolins are also hunted for their meat. In Africa, the animal is eaten in many parts as bush meat, while in China, the meat is believed to have curative properties, and is also consumed as a luxury food item. Even pangolin fetuses are popular in the country, as they are believed to improve virility. The mammal’s blood and body parts, too, are important in traditional Chinese medicine. In 2015, for instance, Indonesian officials confiscated five metric tons of frozen pangolin, 77 kilograms (169 pounds) of pangolin scales, and 96 live pangolins in Sumatra that were destined for China.

Black-bellied pangolin (Phataginus tetradactyla) from Central African Republic that was opportunistically taken for its meat. Photo by John Cannon.

Today, eight species of pangolins survive in the wild, four each in Asia and Africa. All four Asian pangolins — Chinese pangolin (Manis pentadactyla), Sunda pangolin (Manis javanica), Indian pangolin (Manis crassicaudata), and Philippine pangolin (Manis culionensis) — are listed as endangered or critically endangered under the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List.

The four African pangolins — Cape or Temminck’s Ground pangolin (Smutsia temminckii), White-bellied or Tree pangolin (Phataginus tricuspis), Giant Ground pangolin (Smutsia gigantea), Black-bellied or Long-tailed pangolin (Phataginus tetradactyla) — are all listed as vulnerable under the IUCN Red List.

With Asiatic pangolins having suffered steep declines in populations, African pangolins are now being increasingly trafficked to Asian markets, according to the IUCN Species Survival Commission (SSC) Pangolin Specialist Group.

When the EIA mapped all publicly available records for pangolin seizures globally, they found that the number of documented seizure incidents within Africa had gone up from 39 in February 2016 to 113 reported seizures now, with Tanzania, Nigeria, Cameroon and Uganda emerging as key export hubs. This trend is worrying, conservationists say.

Map showing pangolin illegal trade seizures. Courtesy of Environmental Investigation Agency.

“Little is known about the population status of the four African pangolin species in quantitative terms, but each is classified as threatened with extinction,” the IUCN SSC Pangolin Specialist Group wrote in a statement last year. “Their nocturnal and elusive nature makes them difficult to survey and, until recently, they have been largely overlooked by the conservation movement.”

Fortunately, at the most recent Conference of the Parties to CITES, in South Africa in September 2016, all eight pangolin species were uplisted from Appendix II to Appendix I. This means that all pangolin species will receive the strictest global protections from trade.

In another bit of good news, some smuggled pangolins have had a happier ending than others.

Last August, 20 critically endangered Sunda pangolins, confiscated in June, were released to a safe, undisclosed location in Vietnam by the Carnivore and Pangolin Conservation Programme (CPCP), a collaboration between Save Vietnam’s Wildlife (SVW) and Cúc Phương National Park. Then in November, the same teams released 46 Sunda pangolins into the wild. The pangolins had been confiscated from traffickers in September.

Some countries are also beginning to destroy their stocks of pangolin scales to make a statement about their intent to end pangolin trade. Yesterday, for example, Cameroon’s Ministry of Forests and Wildlife burned about three tons of pangolin scales collected from seizures going back as far as 2013. These could represent between 5,000 to 7,500 individual pangolins, experts say.

“This event demonstrates the determination of Cameroon’s government to team with the international community to fight against the illegal wildlife trade,” Kaddu Sebunya, president of African Wildlife Foundation, said in a statement.

These bits of good news are extremely important, but they may not be enough to save the pangolin. Let’s hope that with increased protection, attention, and action, these animals will have a fighting chance to bounce back from near-extinction.

Ground Pangolin at Madikwe Game Reserve in South Africa. Photo by David Brossard. Source: Flickr, licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0.

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