Pangolins in Peril: Wildlife Traffickers Target the World’s Most Profitable Prey

More than a million of the scaly anteaters have been poached from the wild in the past decade.
(Photo: Tim Lewthwaite/Wildlife Conservation Society)
Nov 26, 2015· 2 MIN READ
John R. Platt covers the environment, wildlife, and technology and for TakePart, Scientific American, Audubon, and other publications.

They are the most heavily poached and trafficked species in the world—and until a few years ago, most people on the planet didn’t even know they existed.

They’re called pangolins—eight species of Asian and African scaly anteaters that look like cute little dinosaurs. These harmless creatures live in some pretty remote regions, but that doesn’t stop hunters from tracking them down. Conservationists estimate that more than a million pangolins have been taken from the wild in the past decade. Last year, the International Union for Conservation of Nature announced that all eight species were threatened with extinction. Two species have been declared critically endangered.

Two major factors drive all this trade. Pangolin scales—which, like rhino horns and our own fingernails, are made of keratin—are used to supposedly cure or prevent a variety of illnesses in traditional Asian medicine. Pangolin meat, meanwhile, is considered both a delicacy and a sign of wealth and prosperity. A single bowl of pangolin soup can sell for several hundred dollars.

(See Pete Bethune and his team try to track down a gang of pangolin traders in this week’s episode of The Operatives, which airs on Sunday, Nov. 29, at 10 p.m. ET/PT on Pivot, the television network owned by Participant Media, TakePart’s parent company. Join the Operatives on their missions, and take action to protect all wildlife by clicking here.)

Rampant trade has had a devastating effect on pangolin populations through much of their range. “Pangolins’ behavior isn’t suited for large-scale collection,” said Vincent Nijman, a professor at Oxford Brookes University, who has studied wildlife trafficking for pangolins and many other species. “They’re not just slow-moving; they are also slow in reproduction. They clearly can’t cope with it.”

Nijman recently completed research of pangolin trading in Indonesia. The study, published in TRAFFIC Bulletin, found that the rate of pangolin trading might be even higher than was thought because previous analysis relied on English-language reports. Nijman examined news stories in the Indonesian press and found many seizures that had not previously been counted.

“I managed to find 45 seizures over two-and-a-half years,” he said. “That’s basically one every month.”

It may seem like a lot, but experts say that seizures by police and customs officials represent a tiny fraction of the illegal trade, most of which goes undetected.

RELATED: Groups Ask Obama Administration to Protect Critically Endangered Pangolins

“It’s the tip of the iceberg, but the iceberg underneath it must be horribly large,” Nijman noted, adding that many small villages in Indonesia are home to animal traders with industrial-size freezers capable of holding huge amounts of animals. “You can’t keep an industrial freezer in operation if you get 50 pangolins a year. It must be 100 a week.” Indeed, many seized shipments contain thousands of frozen pangolins.

Despite the devastating trade levels, all may not be lost for the animals.

“I think there is a huge cause for optimism,” said Dan Challender, cochair of the IUCN SSC Pangolin Specialist Group. Established in 2012, the group has brought together pangolin conservationists from around the world to help study the animals in the wild and develop a better understanding of the threats they face.

The Specialist Group is not alone. Vietnam and South Africa hosted important pangolin-related meetings this past year, and a nonprofit called Fondation Segré recently launched a multimillion-dollar initiative to improve pangolin protections in two countries and examine ways to reduce consumer demand.

“That represents a real shift for pangolin conservation,” Challender said. “If you look at where we were in 2012, only a few years ago, it’s almost inconceivable that a project of this size or donations of this size would be available to pangolins specifically.”

Meanwhile, research into pangolins continues on several fronts to better understand where the animals live in the wild, how they are faring there, and exactly how the trade is impacting them. “We need to make sure we can get a handle on pangolin populations in the areas where they still exist and understand how the trade is working,” Challender said. Part of the difficulty involves locating pangolin stronghold habitats without that information finding its way to poachers.

Challender and Nijman agree that the public profile of pangolins has been raised significantly in the past few years, quite a change from when they were a nearly forgotten group of species with few conservation efforts. “We’ve kick-started this conservation movement by bringing people together from across the globe,” Challender said. “It’s a journey and one that hasn’t stopped yet.”

Even with the increased level of awareness, though, there’s still a lot left to do to protect these mysterious creatures. For now, their wild populations will undoubtedly continue to suffer devastating losses. “Wildlife trade is not trade in one pangolin,” Nijman said. “It’s truckloads.”