Have you heard of the pangolin? Sadly, although for many people it’s the first time they may have heard or seen a photo of this shy, sweet-natured animal, pangolins are the most trafficked mammal in the world. Read more about pangolins and the illegal poaching crisis that is driving them to extinction as the world shine’s a spotlight on their desperate plight for World Pangolin Day 2019.
Frozen and bagged, skinned and scaled, throat slit at the dinner table, stashed lifeless in tree trunks with raw elephant tusks, disguised in shipments of snakeskin. This is the terrible fate of a docile scaly mammal called the pangolin, when it finds its way into the hands of wildlife traffickers.
The pangolin has the unfortunate status of being the most trafficked animal in the world, with more killed each day than elephants and rhinos combined.
The disappearance of pangolins is a daily tragedy. It is estimated that every 5 minutes a pangolin is snatched from the wild. And with each day that passes, pangolins are being driven closer to extinction across Asia and Africa by poaching of an unimaginable scale.
Pangolin scales and body parts are used in Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM), locally in Africa for bushmeat and medicine (Muti) and are eaten as a delicacy in Asia. It is unknown how many remain in the wild. All 8 species of pangolin are threatened with 2 species (the Chinese and Sunda pangolin) listed as critically endangered on the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List.
Two years ago a ban on the global trade in all pangolin species went into effect. However, despite this much needed ban, it is estimated that two million pangolins have been poached and illegally trafficked since the ban.
Although 2019 has only just begun, there have already been four huge seizures of pangolin scales and meat, highlighting the devastating scale of the poaching crisis and the escalation of the illegal trade from Africa to Vietnam and China.
UGANDA JAN 2019. Largest ever seizure of pangolin parts found in Uganda. Concealed in hollowed out logs containing both illegal elephant ivory and pangolin scales. In one container alone, 762 pieces of ivory and 423kg of pangolin scales was found. The pangolin scales were smuggled from neighboring South Sudan.
VIETNAM JAN 2019. Nearly 1.4 tonnes of pangolin scales were found together with 100kg of elephant tusks inside a container from Nigeria registered as carrying timber.
HONG KONG FEB 2019. Customs on January 16th, seized about 8,300 kilograms of pangolin scales and 2,100 kilograms of ivory tusks. It was the largest single seizure of pangolin parts in Hong Kong’s history, representing an estimated 13,800 pangolins at an estimated street value of US$5.4 million.
MALAYSIA FEB 2019. Authorities seized almost 30 tonnes of pangolins, including 1,800 boxes of frozen pangolins, 572 more frozen pangolins in six freezers, and 61 live pangolins found in cages. Sabah in Malaysia is considered a major transit point in the pangolin trafficking network between Africa and Asia.
It is feared that since the domestic ban on ivory was implemented in China, with an associated drop in price, smugglers appear to be turning their focus to pangolins. In China, the domestic sale of pangolin scales is still legal.
According to a news story by WildAid this February, recent data from Hong Kong shows a dramatic increase in pangolin seizures and a simultaneous decline in ivory seizures. Hong Kong Customs seized 17.6 tonnes of pangolin scales in 2018, up from 7.9 tonnes in 2017. Meanwhile, the amount of ivory confiscated fell from 7,600 kg in 2017 to 370 kg in 2018.
Pangolins are smuggled not only to feed demand in Asia, but also surprisingly in the United States. In a report published by TRAFFIC and the IUCN in December 2017, China and the US were identified as the most common destinations for international pangolin trafficking during the period studied (2010-2015). Shipments of pangolin parts are arriving in the US from Asian countries - directly from China and Vietnam and also Mexico.
Although the US has the second highest count of seizures, the volume of pangolin products found entering China, Malaysia and Vietnam is beyond comprehension for a shy, nocturnal animal that most of us have never seen.
The plight of the pangolin is desperate.
As a key step to save them before they disappear, we call on China to ban the use of pangolin products in TCM. As we have seen with China’s ban on the sale of elephant ivory, this has made a measurable impact on elephant conservation with a drop in prices for ivory, and associated drop in demand. Several medical companies in China continue to create ‘patented’ prescription products that use pangolin scales as the main ingredient for capsules, ointments, and bandages. However, there are many viable alternatives. According to WildAid, TCM experts at a recent conference in Hong Kong stated that there are over 100 viable alternatives to the uses of pangolin scales already prescribed in traditional medicines. It is clear from seizures just this year, that pangolins are being illegally trafficked from Africa into China to feed this demand.
As highlighted in TRAFFIC’s comprehensive 2017 report on global pangolin trafficking, there are other key actions needed including:
Enhanced law enforcement action for pangolins in all countries implicated in pangolin trafficking
The development of forensic techniques to identify the origin of pangolins and their derivatives to support law enforcement efforts and investigations into the trade chain. Countries making seizures should establish a forensics DNA protocol to ensure pangolin commodities seized can be identified to the species level.
Improved Monitoring and Reporting. All countries involved in the illegal trade in pangolins, their parts and derivatives, should improve reporting of all seizures to CITES.
Increased law enforcement awareness of the pangolin trade. Law enforcement agencies should ensure officers are aware of the significance and relative prevalence of the illegal pangolin trade, able to recognize pangolin products, and increase their vigilance to detect and intercept shipments
Demand Reduction. Efforts should be increased to understand and reduce demand for pangolin products traded illegally in consumer countries, through increased awareness and well-informed and targeted behavioural change efforts.
Demand drivers. While the drivers of trade in Asia are largely known, the demand from priority countries outside Asia (particularly the US and the Netherlands) is poorly understood. Further studies by conservation organizations, research institutions and relevant government agencies are required to decipher what is driving the illegal trade into these countries, what commodities are being traded, and in what quantities. This will greatly assist in identifying the role of non-Asian countries as centres of demand for international pangolin trafficking.
It will take a lot of collaborative, international effort to save pangolins from extinction. Among mammals, the pangolin is among our most ancient ‘kin’, arriving on the evolutionary scene some 35 to 55 million years ago. It was its hard scales that protected it from powerful predators like leopards, wild dogs and tigers and allowed it to flourish across Asia and Africa. It is now being driving to extinction by the hands of humans. Let’s work together to ensure that pangolins do not disappear.
Help us to help pangolins. Donate to support our efforts!
This World Pangolin Day, you can help by making a small contribution to help us protect them in Africa where they are increasingly being poached.
How do we help pangolins? On the ground in Southern Africa, we provide funding for intelligence-led investigative work by local wildlife law enforcement which is critical to identifying poached pangolins that are still alive in captivity before they are trafficked. Our ongoing support of rangers also ensures that pangolins, and all animals and plants that share their habitat within protected areas, stay safe.