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Pangolins Roll into the Wildlife Trafficking Spotlight

Thousands of pangolins are killed each year in the illegal wildlife trade. Photo courtesy of Tikki Hywood Trust, Zimbabwe. An unexpected newcomer has joined the world’s most iconic species — the elephant, rhino, and tiger — under the international wildlife trafficking crisis spotlight: Meet the pangolin. Pangolins are unmistakable in appearance — they are covered...

Thousands of pangolins are killed each year in the illegal wildlife trade. Photo courtesy of Tikki Hywood Trust, Zimbabwe.

An unexpected newcomer has joined the world’s most iconic species — the elephant, rhino, and tiger — under the international wildlife trafficking crisis spotlight: Meet the pangolin.

Pangolins are unmistakable in appearance — they are covered with scales comprised of keratin, and indeed, petting a pangolin feels like stroking a layer of warm thumbnails. There are eight species of pangolin, with four in Africa and four in Asia. They range from the size of a domestic cat to a medium-sized dog. The smaller arboreal species use prehensile tails to assist with navigating forested habitats, while larger terrestrial pangolins sometimes walk upright (as seen in the video below).

The remarkable scales of the pangolin provide an excellent defense against natural predators. When pangolins feel threatened, they roll up into a tight ball which is nearly impenetrable, even for lions and hyenas. Pangolins have also been known to deploy their roly-polyness in order to make use of shallow water.

Pangolins are highly specialized feeders. Not only do pangolins dine exclusively on ants and termites, some researchers believe that this diet is even more precise and limited to local ant and termite species. The tongue is uniquely suited to extracting these particular insects from deep tunnels; it is attached near the pelvis, and when fully extended, the tongue is longer than the pangolin’s body.

Unfortunately, pangolins are the most frequently encountered mammal in Asia’s illegal wildlife trade. It is not uncommon for police and customs authorities to seize hundreds, or even thousands, of pangolins in a single incident. The primary destination for pangolin scales and flesh is mainland China; pangolin parts are consumed in Vietnam as well. Scales are erroneously believed to have medicinal properties, and the flesh and fetuses are eaten as delicacies.

Pangolins and a tortoise await certain death at a wildlife market in Indonesia. Photo courtesy of TRAFFIC Southeast Asia.
Pangolins and a tortoise await certain death at a wildlife market in Indonesia. Photo courtesy of TRAFFIC Southeast Asia.

Quite literally tons of pangolins are taken out of Southeast Asia’s rainforests every year, with the hardest hit species being the Sunda pangolin. Dr. Chris Shepherd, Regional Director of TRAFFIC Southeast Asia, explains that “tens of thousands of pangolin hunters” are at work every day.

“In places like Sumatra, for example, there are tens of thousands of people working in rural situations — in plantations, in forests, in agriculture — and basically, everybody knows if you find a pangolin, you can sell it. So it’s a bonus. There are few, if any, full-time pangolin collectors. It’s a side income. So when you have that many people out there, if each person finds a pangolin every two weeks or something, it adds up. You’ve effectively got potentially tens of thousands of pangolin ‘hunters’ out there every day.”

In fact, pangolin hunters and traders say that pangolins have disappeared entirely from some areas in Asia, which has led to increased trade in African pangolins. This is a familiar pattern. Following the depletion of the Asian rhino species, wildlife traffickers turned to African rhinos. And in order to fill the gap in the illegal market left by the disappearance of Asia’s tigers, some proprietors of South Africa’s lion farms are (legally) selling lion skeletons to wildlife traffickers.

Pangolin trafficking in Africa has not reached the commercial scale seen in Asia. However, Lisa Hywood, founder of Tikki Hywood Trust in Zimbabwe, says that pangolins are “most definitely” becoming more frequent in bushmeat seizures.

“Now, when there are seizures made and the animals are lain out on the ground, you start seeing pangolins in literally every seizure that’s going through borders.”

She says that pangolins are generally part of wildlife seizures that include primates, porcupines and other animals targeted by the bushmeat trade. Hywood notes that the pangolin trade has increased rapidly over the last few years, and says there is a correlation with air routes being opened between Africa and Asia. There has been a major influx of people from Asia into Africa, and we have to consider cultural differences, she says.

This year, there has already been a seizure of 39 pangolins in China, with one person taken into custody. 2013 was definitely deadly for pangolins, with an estimated 8,125 of these shy creatures confiscated in 49 instances of illegal trade across 13 countries. Because seizures represent just 10 to 20 percent of the actual illegal trade volume, this strongly suggests that approximately 40,625 to 81,250 pangolins were killed in just one year. And this is a conservative estimate compiled mainly from media reports.

All eight pangolin species are currently listed under CITES (the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora) Appendix II, which allows for some regulated trade (“subject to strict regulation in order to avoid utilization incompatible with their survival”), although a zero export quota is in place for wild-caught Asian pangolins. Considering that pangolins rarely survive in captivity, it is extremely unlikely that captive breeding is taking place for this species. Dr. Shepherd warns that wildlife traders are notorious for exploiting this loophole.

“Claims of breeding pangolins for commercial purposes should be treated as fraud and investigated. Declaring wild-caught animals, of many species, as captive-bred is an extremely common form of fraud and should become an issue of high priority for enforcement agencies.”

Yet, despite these concerns, it was recently suggested that laws should be relaxed to increase legal trade in pangolins. But most pangolin trade experts, including Dr. Shepherd, caution against providing additional avenues for laundering illegally sourced wildlife. He describes the idea as “an absolute nightmare”.

“It will potentially — greatly — increase the risk to pangolins. In countries in Southeast Asia, where species are legally traded, I can’t give you any examples where threatened species are recovering because of commercial trade, or where poaching has declined. For example, the Siamese crocodile is heavily farmed in Southeast Asia — legally — and yet the wild population is all but gone.”

There is comparatively little data available on pangolins. One thing we do know, according to IUCN Red List assessments, is that all pangolin populations are declining.

Both Shepherd and Hywood are concerned that national laws in pangolin range states are inconsistently enforced, and agree that awareness of pangolins needs be raised among law enforcement agencies and judiciaries. Dr. Shepherd points out the challenges.

“Even awareness of the wildlife acts and the laws protecting wildlife are often poorly understood or poorly known among enforcement agencies. There’s a lot of work to do on that front. Capacity amongst enforcement agencies is also pretty low in many countries, where officers just aren’t trained to carry out proper investigations, or prosecutors aren’t equipped to prosecute wildlife crimes. And let’s face it: most people don’t know what a pangolin is, so getting enforcement agencies excited about cracking down on pangolin trade is an uphill battle.”

Although Zimbabwe handed down a nine-year prison sentence to a pangolin trafficker in October 2013, Hywood is disappointed that subsequent cases were not as successful. She explains that Zimbabwe’s laws provide for full protection of pangolins, but are not aways enforced. It’s a challenge, she says, because you have to reach everyone, from the guy who makes the arrest all the way up to the magistrate. “All of those people need to be sensitized to the importance of pangolin.”

Dr. Shepherd emphasizes the necessity of international cooperation for addressing the illegal trade in pangolins.

“Increased communication and cooperation between authorities in all pangolin range states and in consumer countries is essential, and multi-national enforcement efforts should be carried out to dismantle trade chains and to put the main players in the pangolin trade behind bars.”

There seems to be encouraging news on the horizon for pangolins — and other species threatened by wildlife trafficking. The historical London Conference on The Illegal Wildlife Trade, held February 12 – 13 of this year, resulted in 41 countries pledging to end this global scourge.

“The economic, social, and environmental impacts of the illegal wildlife trade can only be effectively tackled if we eradicate both the demand and supply sides for illegal products wherever in the world this occurs.”

The London Conference was preceded by the International Wildlife Trafficking Symposium on February 11 – 12, a forum for sharing experiences from those involved in fighting wildlife crime, as well as those active in other, related fields that can provide insight in combating wildlife trafficking. The Prince of Wales and his son HRH The Duke of Cambridge — both active in the fight against wildlife trafficking — attended the Symposium.

On February 11, the United States unveiled its National Strategy for Combating Wildlife Trafficking. The National Strategy will advance the strategic priorities of Strengthening domestic and global enforcement, reducing demand for illegally traded wildlife at home and abroad, and building international cooperation. This includes tightening loopholes for domestic ivory trade.

The National Strategy even includes pangolins on page 4:

“The scale and scope of wildlife trafficking continue to grow at an alarming rate, reversing decades of conservation gains. Wildlife trafficking threatens an increasing variety of terrestrial, freshwater, and marine species, including but not limited to: elephants, rhinos, tigers, sharks, tuna, sea turtles, land tortoises, great apes, exotic birds, pangolins, sturgeon, coral, iguanas, chameleons, and tarantulas. Wildlife trafficking is facilitated and exacerbated by illegal harvest and trade in plants and trees, which destroys needed habitat and opens access to previously remote populations of highly endangered wildlife, such as tigers.”

Public awareness about pangolins also appears to be on the rise. These endearing mammals were celebrated on February 15 — the third annual World Pangolin Day.

World Pangolin Day is celebrated on the third Saturday in February.
World Pangolin Day is celebrated on the third Saturday in February.

World Pangolin Day, celebrated on the third Saturday in February, capitalizes on the reach of social media and has gained supporters across pangolin range countries in both Asia and Africa, as well as the West. This year, wildlife activists in China — the main consumer of pangolins — launched a pangolin campaign on Weibo to mark World Pangolin Day:

World Pangolin Day 2014 was celebrated offline as well. BCARE (Biodiversity Conservation Awareness Research and Education) Foundation in India reports that students at the CSI Higher Secondary School in Tamil Nadu formed a human rangoli, creating the words “World Pangolin Day.”

You can help make a difference for pangolins by sharing information with your friends and colleagues, and by supporting organizations that work to protect pangolins (listed in the video below).

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Meet the Author

Author Photo Rhishja Cota-Larson
Rhishja is the founder of Annamiticus, an educational nonprofit organization which is working to stop the economic exploitation of endangered species. She has journeyed to the streets of Hanoi to research the illegal wildlife trade, and to the rainforests of Sumatra and Java to document the world’s rarest rhinos. At CITES CoP16 in Bangkok, she joined colleagues from around the world to lobby in favor of protecting endangered species. Rhishja is a Producer for the upcoming documentary The Price, the host of the podcast Behind the Schemes, and author of the book Murder, Myths & Medicine.