The World's Most Trafficked Wild Mammal
Pangolins are small mammals of the order Philodota, often referred to as “scaly anteaters” for their defining physical trait: large, overlapping scales composed of keratin, the same proteins that make up human fingernails as well as rhino horns.
These scales serve as a pangolin’s primary defense from predators. When threatened, the animal curls up into a tight ball, with its scales serving as effective armor (the word pangolin comes from the Malay word pengguling, meaning "something that rolls up”).
There are eight pangolin species, four native to Asia — the Malayan, Chinese, Philippine, and Indian pangolins — and four native to Africa — the White-bellied, Black-bellied, Giant Ground, and Temminck’s Ground pangolins.
Pangolins are insectivores, feeding on ants and termites, thus acting as natural pest controllers. Their anatomy is well adapted to this specialized diet: long claws for digging up ant nests and termite mounds; ears that seal up to prevent ants from crawling in; and tongues as long as one-third of their body length for scooping up prey.
All eight species of pangolin are included in CITES Appendix II, a list of flora and fauna species that are not yet facing extinction but require closely controlled trade rules to avert the threat of extinction. Since 2000, three of the Asian pangolin species have been further protected by a CITES zero export quota for wild-caught individuals, which bans all commercial trade in the Malayan, Chinese, and Indian pangolins. In 2007, the same protection was adopted for the Philippine Pangolin.
Photo by Paul Hilton/WildAid
The Pangolin Trade
Unfortunately, demand for pangolin scales, as well as pangolin meat, has caused tens of thousands of pangolins to be poached every year. Some researchers say that pangolins are the most commonly trafficked mammal in the world, according to the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN).
At least 218,100 pangolins were seized between 2000 and 2012, a figure likely to represent only a fraction of those being illegally traded. The IUCN estimates that at least 1 million individuals have been traded over the past decade.
Over the past several years, there has been an increase in the number of seizures of pangolin scales, as well as whole pangolins, both live and frozen. Overwhelming evidence demonstrates that shipments of pangolin scales weighing in the tons are now trafficked from Africa to Asia, along the same routes as elephant ivory and rhino horn. Some of the same criminals benefiting from the illegal ivory and rhino horn trades are now likely benefiting from the pangolin trade as well.
Conservationists are highly concerned about the speed with which pangolins are being extirpated across their ranges. Indeed, rapid action is required to save these animals. In 2008, only two species of pangolin — the Malayan Pangolin Manis javanica and the Chinese Pangolin M. pentadactyla — were classified by IUCN as Endangered.
All are now threatened with extinction: the Chinese and Malayan pangolins are now classified as Critically Endangered, the Indian and Philippine pangolins as Endangered, and all four African species as Vulnerable.
Pangolin meat is considered a delicacy in Asia, while the scales and fetuses are used in Traditional Chinese Medicine and in traditional African bush medicine. The rapidly emerging Chinese middle class, expected to grow from 300 million to 550 million within 15 years, is believed to be driving the illegal trade.
However, the United States is not immune to this trade and consumption. Records exist of large pangolin shipments destined for the US, and recently the animals have been seen for sale in California supermarkets.
WildAid is preparing to launch a new campaign to raise awareness about the impact of the consumption of pangolin meat and scales on pangolin populations. We will work with our network of over 100 media partners in China and Vietnam to distribute campaign messages to millions of people in an effort to reduce demand for pangolin products in Asia.
Our campaign will aim to have all eight species uplisted to the CITES Appendix I listing. A CITES Appendix I listing acknowledges that the species included in the list are threatened with extinction and either currently are or may be affected by trade; trade is subject to strict regulations, and only authorized in “exceptional circumstances.”
First and foremost, do not buy food or souvenirs containing pangolin.