Pangolins are among the oddest and least-familiar animals on Earth. They’re mammals, but they're armor-plated. Their chief defensive posture is to tuck their heads under their tails and roll up, like a basketball crossed with an artichoke. (It works: Even lions generally can’t get a grip.) They have tongues that are not only coated with a sticky, fly paper–like substance but can also extend up to 16 inches to probe into nests and snag ants for dinner. They’re shy, nocturnal and live either high up trees or deep underground.
Lisa Hywood has lately discovered just how charismatic these obscure creatures can be. At the Tikki Hywood Trust, her rescue center in Zimbabwe, one of her current guests, named Chaminuka, recognizes Hywood and makes a soft chuffing noise when she comes home. Then he stands up to hold her hand and greet her, she tells me. (Bit of a snob, though: He doesn’t deign to recognize her assistants.) Hywood finds working with pangolins even more emotionally powerful than working with elephants.
It’s also more urgent: Pangolins, she says, are “the new rhinos,” with illegal trade now raging across Asia and Africa. They are routinely served up as a status symbol on the dinner plates of the nouveaux riches in China and Vietnam. Their scales are ground up, like rhino horn, into traditional medicines. Pangolin scales, like rhino horn, are made from keratin and about as medicinally useful as eating fingernail clippings. When poachers get caught with live pangolins, Hywood rehabilitates the animals for reintroduction to the wild.
But a lot of pangolins aren't that lucky. By one estimate, poachers have killed and taken to market as many as 182,000 pangolins since 2011. And the trade seems only to be growing bigger. In northeastern India early this week, for instance, authorities nabbed a smuggler with 550 pounds of pangolin scales. Something like that happens almost every week. Many more shipments make it through.
There is little prospect that this trade will stop, short of extinction for the eight pangolin species. Two of the four species in Asia are currently listed as endangered and likely to be moved soon to critically endangered status. As pangolins have vanished from much of Asia, demand has shifted to Africa, which also has four species. The price for a single animal there can now run as high as $7,000, according to Darren Pietersen, who tracks radio-tagged pangolins for his doctoral research at the University of Pretoria.
Hunters use dogs to locate arboreal pangolins or set snares outside the burrows of ground-dwelling species. That rolled-up defensive posture, which works so well against lions, just makes it easier for human hunters to pick them up and bag them, says Dan Challender, cochair of the Pangolin Specialist Group of the International Union for the Conservation of Nature. His research has taken him to a restaurant in Vietnam where, by chance, he witnessed a pangolin being presented live to a diner, then killed to be eaten. At such restaurants, stewed pangolin fetus is a special treat.
The trade is already illegal in many countries, and it is also banned by the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species. But enforcement is minimal, and even poachers seized with tons of smuggled animals often get away with a wrist slap. Authorities sometimes dispose of these shipments by auction, cashing in on the illegal market.
It could be worse than what’s happening to elephants and rhinos.
Zoos at least know how to breed those species in captivity, says Hywood. But so far, no one has managed to captive-breed any of the eight pangolin species. That means that if Chaminuka and his ilk go extinct in the wild before scientists can figure that out, these curious creatures will be gone forever.