Groups Ask Obama Administration to Protect Critically Endangered Pangolins

The scaly anteaters are being decimated to supply the black market trade in wildlife parts.
This baby pangolin was released back into the North Sumatra forest in July 2012 after police rescued it—and 84 other pangolins—from smugglers. (Photo: AFP/Getty Images)
Jul 15, 2015· 2 MIN READ
John R. Platt covers the environment, wildlife, and technology and for TakePart, Scientific American, Audubon, and other publications.

The most heavily poached animals on the planet got a major show of support on Wednesday.

No, we’re not talking about tigers or rhinos or even elephants—species being killed in huge numbers by illegal hunters. Those numbers pale in comparison with those of pangolins, a group of eight cute-as-heck scaly anteater species from Asia and Africa.

So, Why Should You Care? More than 1 million pangolins have been killed over the past decade to feed a voracious demand for their meat and scales, which are used in traditional Asian medicine.

“Those kinds of poaching levels just can’t be sustained,” said Sarah Uhlemann, senior attorney and international program director with the Center for Biological Diversity, one of five organizations that have petitioned the Obama administration to give all eight pangolin species federal protections under the U.S. Endangered Species Act.

Born Free USA, the Humane Society International, the Humane Society of the United States, and the International Fund for Animal Welfare joined the center in filing the formal request.

RELATED: World's Cutest Anteater Threatened by Poachers

Although most of the market for pangolin scales and other products lies in Vietnam and China, a surprising amount of trade is targeted at the United States. A search of the trade database for the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species—which bans trade in all four Asian pangolin species and restricts trade in African pangolins—revealed that dozens of pangolin shipments arrive in the U.S. every year. Many contain hundreds or even thousands of animal parts.

Regardless of species, pangolin scales look pretty much alike once removed from an animal’s body, so it is difficult to know whether the shipments contain Asian or African pangolins.

As with elephant ivory and rhino horns, much of this illegal trade is enabled by criminal syndicates that also smuggle guns and drugs. “It’s hard to say how many pangolin products are coming across the border, but the numbers show that there’s a lot trying to get into the U.S., which shows there’s a huge market for pangolin products here,” Uhlemann said.

The Humane Society has found evidence of online stores selling pangolin-based products in the U.S. for as little as $5, with accompanying claims that the snake-oil concoctions can cure everything from pain to exhaustion to acne.

Protecting pangolins under U.S. endangered species laws would help curb the market, said Uhlemann, and boost the profile for this little-known group of animals. The move might also lead to U.S. participation in wild pangolin conservation efforts.

“The U.S. tends to be a leader on conservation issues,” she said. “When we take action, it shows the rest of the world that maybe they should be taking action too.”

(Infographic: Courtesy HSUS)

The U.S. showed some of that leadership recently by helping to fund the first Pangolin Range States Meeting, held in June in Vietnam. The meeting brought together representatives from 29 nations to share information on pangolin hunting and trafficking, as well as to discuss conservation action plans.

Uhlemann and her colleagues believe many pangolin populations could disappear as the species wend their way through the process of being listed under the Endangered Species Act, which can take a couple of years.

To overcome that hurdle, the conservation groups simultaneously filed a second formal request with the Obama administration to immediately protect all eight pangolin species, under an ESA provision that authorizes protection for “lookalike” species that are hard to tell apart. The move could work because one pangolin species, the Temminck’s or ground pangolin, has had federal wildlife protections since 1976, when the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service bulk listed a number of species banned for trade by CITES.

Federal wildlife officials have taken similar action in the past to protect species of turtles and fish.

Uhlemann said she’s hopeful for the future of pangolins if action is taken quickly: “They’re maybe not as sexy as rhinos or elephants, but they deserve protection.”