The Race to Save the Pangolin, the Most Trafficked Animal on Earth
Pangolins, known for their long, sticky tongues and ability to roll up into a ball, have become the most trafficked animals on Earth.
A new study published this month in the journal Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment is the first to report on their dire situation.
The study, a collaboration between Oxford University's Wildlife Conservation Research Unit, the Chinese Public Security Bureau, and the Chinese Academy of Sciences, reports that documents from just one trafficking syndicate noted an alarming number of pangolins—22,000, to be exact—had been killed in 21 months.
Hunted for food, fashion, and medicine, these scaly anteaters are protected by CITES—the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna or Flora.
Despite this, they're also a lucrative commodity in the $6 billion-a-year illegal animal trafficking trade. Just 500 grams of the scales can retail for up to $350. This is further compounded by the pangolin's reproductive habits—the animal gives birth to only a single offspring every year.
While the trafficking of rhinos and elephants receives plenty of international attention, the pangolin's plight, much like the elusive animal itself, remains under the radar.
The study's authors say that if pangolin conservation efforts continue to meander, the animal's future is increasingly desperate.
Jonathan Baillie, the conservation programmes director at the Zoological Society of London, whose focus is on endangered and rare species, says the demand for pangolin has soared in China, India, and Myanmar. Now it's being seen further west as well.
“As Chinese interests increase in Africa, we're seen an even higher volume of species being traded,” says Baillie. “Over the last 10 years, there have been seizures of 200,000 pangolins. This represents a very small portion of the total number.”
Last year a Chinese ship containing 22,000 pounds of dead pangolin crashed into a protected reef in the Philippines. The crew was arrested on charges of poaching and attempted robbery, The Guardian reported.
With the help of several organizations and a growing pangolin-loving community, the mammal's profile is being raised.
The first-ever International Pangolin Conference was held last June in Singapore, with 40 conservationists from 14 countries coming together to discuss the future of the declining mammal.
Meanwhile, SavePangolins.org, the first website dedicated to the pangolin, has been doing its part to combat the situation. It has held workshops for conservation in Cambodia and raised more than $13,000 through several grants to help.
"There's been a lot more attention and focus; we're starting to now see them getting much greater coverage than they have in the past. But the fact is, so little is known; there's a lot we need to learn," says Bailie.
One sector that might help with education is much-needed rehabilitation centers for pangolins that have been caught alive while being trafficked. One such venture exists in Vietnam. The Carnivore and Pangolin Conservation Program, which rehabilitates and releases trade-confiscated pangolins, recently uploaded a heartwarming video of one pangolin's release in to the wild last month.
"It's such a charismatic species when you get to learn about it," says Bailie, "but there's a real opportunity to raise its profile."