Shy. Small. Scaly.
When you think of wildlife trafficking, there is a high likelihood the first animal that pops in your head is the African Elephant, or the Bengal Tiger. Although these animals are commonly trafficked, they are not ranked first as the world’s most trafficked animal. In fact, pangolins are the most trafficked animal, with 1,000,000 pangolins being poached as of 2017. As Prince William has put it, ‘the pangolins run the risk of becoming extinct before most people have even heard of them.’
Despite their tough shell being able to resist the teeth of lions and leopards, their defense mechanism of curling in ball has made it easy to poachers to catch them. Unfortunately, these pangolins are known to be elusive to scientists as conservationists have struggled to find a wild pangolin.
Pangolin trafficking has been prominent in Asia, particularly China, Vietnam and Indonesia, albeit Africa has been joining the illegal market to meet the high demand. They are mainly hunted for their scales as they are used in traditional Asian medicine, believing that their scales can cure cancer, stimulate breast milk and improve fertility, despite these scales containing keratin- the same material in a human fingernail. Apart from medicinal purposes, their scales have been turned into jewelry. Furthermore, their meat is considered a delicacy, where chefs make pangolin fetus soup, believing this dish can enhance a man’s virility.
Nevertheless, the belief of pangolins being used for medicinal purposes remains ingrained in culture, with Alexandra Andersson- an ecology PhD student at Hong Kong University- finding that ‘85% of the respondents (residents in Hong Kong) thought that pangolin scales had medicinal value, even though there is no peer-reviewed evidence for this.’ However, these beliefs arise from a pangolin’s behaviour, believing the fact that their diet consists of ants can treat ant stings, or the fact that pangolins dig holes can open some blockage inside the human body.
Furthermore, their scales have been reported for drug use. In Indonesia, their scales have been used to manufacture shabu shabu, a colloquial term for methamphetamine. As a result, their scales have become popular in the black market, with investigators finding that one can ‘order one if you like’, stating that a live pangolin can be sold for $350.
This issue is further exacerbated by the fact that females can only produce one child each year, as well as their specialised diets, resulting in a lack of success when attempting to raise pangolins in captivity. Furthermore, their habitat loss has made it difficult to prevent them from going extinct. As a result, it is believed pangolins make up approximately 20% of all illegal trade in animals.
With the pangolin population reaching half of their number at the beginning of the millenium, the likelihood of pangolins reaching extinction in the near future has increased. Furthermore, on 6th April 2018, at least 1,000 kilograms of pangolin scales, along with elephant tusks were found, about to be transported to China. At the same time, 500 kilograms of pangolin scales were seized at Benin on March 19th 2018. This can have a detrimental effect on the ecosystem as their ant-eating diet has become a natural pest control; the extinction of pangolins can cause a turnover in the ecosystem.
There is a sign of hope. As of 2016, 180 governments have agreed to protect the pangolin population and end legal trade of pangolins. This can stimulate a partnership between non-government organisations such as WWF with businesses and governments as conservationists aim to educate the general public on pangolin extinction without criticising cultural beliefs.
One way you can get involved is to virtually adopt a pangolin from WWF. Your donations can help fund their cause as they work together with TRAFFIC to protect species from illegal trade.
Furthermore, help increase awareness on pangolins by celebrating World Pangolin Day on the 17th February. With the increasing demand of pangolins, you can help educate others on pangolins and support stricter law enforcement on illegal trade. You can find more information on the World Pangolin website. Spread the word through using #WorldPangolinDay.
Actman, J., ‘The World’s Most Trafficked Mammal Just Got Desperately Needed Help,’ National Geographic, 28th September 2016
Actman, J., ‘What’s Next for the World’s Most Trafficked Mammal,’ National Geographic, 18th March 2016
Cannon, C. J., ‘Half a ton of pangolin scales seized on the way to Asia from Benin,’ Mongabay, 19th April 2018
Fletcher, M., ‘The world’s most-trafficked mammal- and the scaliest,’ BBC, 5th February 2015
Kindseka, E. M., ‘Cameroon Investigates Illegal Ivory, Pangolin Scales Bound for China,’ VOA News, 13th April 2018
Robson, D., ‘How to save the world’s most trafficked mammal,’ BBC, 20th April 2017
Rogacki, N., ‘The Tragic Tale of a Pangolin, the World’s Most Trafficked Animal | Short Film Showcase,’ National Geographic, uploaded 20th February 2017
Rosa, A., Topsfield, J., ‘The hunt for the pangolin, the world’s most trafficked mammal,’ The Sydney Morning Herald, updated 19th February 2017
World Wildlife Fund, ‘What is a pangolin?’ WWF
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