World's Cutest Anteater Increasingly Threatened by Poachers

Authorities just seized scales from 1,500 pangolins smuggled into Hong Kong.

A baby pangolin sits on its mother's back. (Photo: STR New/Reuters)

Jun 12, 2014· 1 MIN READ
John R. Platt covers the environment, wildlife, and technology and for TakePart, Scientific American, Audubon, and other publications.

Customs officials in Hong Kong have intercepted a shipment of more than 1,000 kilograms (2,200 pounds) of pangolin scales hidden in a shipment of plastic toys from South Africa. Pangolins, also known as scaly anteaters, are a group of eight species from Africa and Asia that face extinction because of unsustainable and often illegal trade. The animals are eaten in soup and other dishes, and their scales are used in traditional medicine to "cure" a variety of ailments. (Like rhino horn—also craved by poachers—the scales are made of keratin, the same substance in human fingernails, and have no medicinal qualities.)

According to the Hong Kong Information Services Department, this is the largest seizure of pangolin scales in five years. The scales were valued at about $645,000 and probably represent 1,500 to 1,700 animals. A few weeks ago border police intercepted a similarly large shipment of 956 pangolin carcasses weighing nearly 4,000 kilograms (8,818 pounds). The animals were hidden in a coal container entering the country through Guangdong province.

These seizures come just a few weeks after China enacted a law banning the consumption of endangered species. Pangolins are on that list, as are tigers and other threatened animals. Anyone caught buying or selling the animals could face fines and up to 10 years in jail.

Dan Challender, cochair of the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s Species Survival Commission Pangolin Specialist Group and a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Kent, called the smuggling of scales "extremely alarming" and said the case is "symptomatic of what is happening to pangolins globally. They are being poached or hunted, at seemingly unsustainable rates." Trade in all four Asian pangolin species is completely banned under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species. The four African species are also protected under CITES, which strictly limits how many of the animals may be traded.

Challender said the Asian pangolin species have all faced precipitous declines in recent years because of overexploitation. "The African species are now being targeted for intercontinental trade to Asian markets," he said. Greater economic ties between African and East Asian countries is only making the problem worse.

Several other large pangolin seizures have been reported in the past few months. Last month 130 live pangolins from Malaysia were rescued from traffickers in Thailand. Suspects told police that the animals were bound for China, where they would sell for about $3,100 each. In April 145 kilograms of pangolin scales were confiscated at an airport in Pakistan. Incredibly, the passengers were not charged and were allowed to continue their flight to Hong Kong. A report earlier this year called pangolins the most heavily trafficked group of species and found that about 10,000 animals are seized from smugglers or poachers every year. Because many smugglers are never caught, the actual level of trade could be 10 times as high.

TRAFFIC, the international wildlife trade monitoring organization, held a meeting this week in New Delhi, India, to discuss the illegal trade of "poorly known wildlife species," including pangolins. "Many of India's less well-known species are...rapidly vanishing because of poaching, yet their fate remains largely under the radar," Dr. Shekhar Kumar Niraj, head of TRAFFIC in India, said at the event.