The pangolin is in grave danger of extinction, in part because people believe the myth that pangolin scales can cure diseases. Megan Berman of African Wildlife Foundation reports
he world’s most trafficked mammal may vanish before many people have ever heard of it. The pangolin, a shy and scaly animal, resembles an armadillo and is found in both Africa and Asia. All eight species, four found on each continent, are decreasing in population and are at risk of extinction.
The four African species — the white-bellied pangolin, giant ground pangolin, Temminck’s ground pangolin, and black-bellied pangolin — are classified as “vulnerable” in the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List. The white-bellied pangolin is the most common of the African pangolins, but IUCN predicts a 40 per cent decline in the next decade based on current trends.
African pangolins prefer sandy soils and can be found in dense woodlands, forested savannahs, and floodplain grasslands. They are insectivorous and consume primarily ants and termites. Pangolins are nocturnal creatures; they remain safely in their burrows during daytime and use their keen senses of smell and hearing at night to locate termite and ant mounds.
As they have no teeth, pangolins dig out insects using their claws and slurp them up with their extremely long tongues — some can be up to 16 inches! Their stomachs are powerful muscles specially adapted to grind food, with the help of accumulated sand and small stones that pangolins swallow as they forage.
Pangolins have seen a rapid decline in their population in the last several decades. In areas of accelerated human population growth, habitat loss is a grave threat for pangolins. Poaching also is a dire threat. Pangolins are slow-moving and will roll themselves into a ball if they feel threatened — making them easy targets. Their armour-plated scales can cut and inflict serious wounds on a lion, leopard, or hyena — but are no match for a weapon-wielding human. Poachers simply pick pangolins up and drop them into a bag.
Poachers kill almost 2.7 million African pangolins every year, making them the most trafficked mammal in the world.
Although pangolins are a protected species in China, there is a thriving black market for pangolin meat and especially for scales, which account for 20 per cent of body weight. The scales are in high demand for use in traditional Chinese medicine. People believe they cure arthritis and cancer, promote breast-feeding for lactating mothers, improve poor circulation, and even enhance male vitality — despite no scientific backing for any of these “cures.” In fact, pangolin scales are made of keratin — the same material in human fingernails.
The scales are cooked in vinegar, oil, boy’s urine, or even roasted with oyster shells or dirt to then “treat” a variety of health issues. The concoctions have been used to calm crying children, drain pus, fix liver ailments, malaria and deafness, and some have used them to free women said to be possessed by the devil. In Taiwan, people will drink a mixture of pangolin blood and wine for supposed health benefits.
Pangolin meat: a status symbol
Pangolin meat is a delicacy served to flaunt wealth and influence in China and other East Asian countries. There is a dish called pangolin fetus soup, often the most expensive menu item at East Asian restaurants. Reportedly at special events and dinners, a live pangolin can be requested and then brought to table, where it is killed and cooked in front of the patrons.
Recently, even our own African countries have begun serving pangolin in restaurants and markets as an exclusive and expensive food item. Pangolin scales and body parts have been used in traditional African medicine for years; a 2014 National Institute of Health report surveyed 63 traditional healers in Sierra Leone and found that 22 different pangolin body parts have been used to treat 59 diseases. Most of the healers surveyed were unaware that the pangolin was rapidly declining and vulnerable to extinction in the near future.
As the demand for pangolins rise, so do the costs on the underground market. In the 1990s, a buyer could purchase a kilogram of pangolin scales for as little as US$14. According to the Center for Biological Diversity, today a kilogram of pangolin scales is worth over US$600. The scales are worth nearly their weight in silver on the black market. The price will only continue to increase as the population shrinks.
According to a recent report from TRAFFIC and the IUCN, authorities have seized pangolins in 67 countries and territories across six continents. They found 159 international shipping routes traffickers use to smuggle pangolins across the globe — usually out of Africa and through Europe to avoid detection. The largest shipments have come from Uganda, Cameroon, Sierra Leone, and Nigeria.
The largest pangolin bust on record happened this past February in Malaysia, in the eastern Sabah state of Borneo. Authorities found 30 tons of pangolins including 1,800 boxes of frozen pangolins, an additional 572 pangolins frozen separately, 61 live pangolins, and 361 kilograms of pangolin scales. They also seized two bear paws and four flying fox carcasses — the total haul was worth at least US$2 million.
Malaysian police detained a 35-year-old factory manager in connection to the wildlife trafficking crime. Police believe the pangolin processing factory has been operating for seven years, buying illegally from local hunters and distributing pangolin meat to buyers within neighbouring communities.
In another recent bust, officers found 9 tons of pangolin scales — estimated to come from more than 14,000 pangolins — and over 1,000 elephant tusks at a Hong Kong customs facility in January 2019.
The contraband was concealed under slabs of frozen meat on a cargo ship headed towards Vietnam. The ship originated from Nigeria and the illegal goods were valued at almost $8 million; it was the largest wildlife product seizure ever in Hong Kong. Authorities arrested a 39-year-old owner of a Hong Kong trading company and his 29-year-old employee in connection with the crime.
Hong Kong has long been a hub for illegal wildlife commerce — in addition to pangolin scales, elephant ivory, rhino horn, lion and tiger bone, shark fins and live exotic pets are profitable trafficked goods. Until recently, the domestic ivory trade was legal in Hong Kong, but in 2018, lawmakers voted to ban all ivory sales by 2021. The punishment for smuggling illegal wildlife products is a maximum ten-year prison sentence and fines of up to US$1.3 million.
The United States shoulders some of the blame for the demise of the pangolin. The market for pangolin belts, wallets, cowboy boots, and other leather goods has been documented for decades. According to a report from the U.S. Department of Interior, between 1980 and 1985, more than 165,000 pangolin skins were imported from Asia. Since 2005, U.S. customs officials have seized 30,000 illegally imported pangolins.
Upgrading the protection status
In 2016, pangolins were finally given the highest level of protection under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES), moving from Appendix II to Appendix I. On January 2, 2017, the listing went into effect, banning the commercial trade of all eight pangolin species and their parts.
But implementation is another story. Currently, just 17 pangolin-range states have enacted legislation that meets CITES requirements; 31 states have not. Increased law enforcement is required at all points of the illegal trade to help save the pangolin. Furthermore, governments must disrupt the demand by dispelling the myth that pangolin scales contain healing properties.
African Wildlife Foundation has several different strategies to protect pangolins. We seek to raise awareness and reduce demand via community-based programs that sensitise people to the long-term costs of poaching. We also help to create sustainable livelihoods as alternatives to bushmeat hunting and poaching.
In addition, our Canines for Conservation program places highly trained detection dog-and-handler units at transportation hubs, border areas, and other hotspots to help deter poaching. In China, AWF has partnered with WildAid and the Beijing Zoo to help raise awareness about endangered species including the pangolin.
The more we can share facts about the grave threats facing pangolins and encourage governments to denounce the killing of pangolins, the greater the chances of survival for this unusual species.