Not many people have heard of the pangolin. But this little armoured creature, who looks like a cross between a mini anteater and an armadillo and is said to have inspired the Pokémon Sandslash, is the world’s most trafficked mammal.
The pangolin is a small, gentle, solitary creature which eats ants and termites with a long thin tongue. There are eight species of pangolin found in Africa and Asia (China, Sunda, India and the Philippines) and they range from ‘vulnerable’ to ‘critically endangered’, but all are “threatened with extinction”. Because all four Asian species are critically endangered, poachers are now turning to Africa to fill demand. The Sunday Times photographer Brent Stirton recently reported on the illegal trade of pangolins in Africa, you can see the photos here.
We read mostly about the plight of rhinos and elephants, yet the pangolin is in far more danger. When pangolins are scared or threatened by predators, they roll up into a ball with their scales outwards to create an armoured exterior. Unfortunately, they are all to easy for poachers to catch, who just pick them up.
Despite an international ban on commercial trade of pangolins in 2016, the illegal trade is only growing. The now, outlawed consumption of these animals has driven sales into the shadows of the black market, with rocketing prices. Poachers in India can reportedly earn a full year’s salary for a single pangolin. According to Unearthed, the journalism outlet for Greenpeace, China and Hong Kong, which are both signatories of the ban, legally imported almost 13 tonnes of pangolin scales in 2017. The US had also ‘legally’ imported 106 specimens for commercial purposes in 2017-2018.
The largest seizure to date was in China when a shipment of 23 tons of pangolin scales was intercepted. It is estimated that 50,000 pangolins were killed to yield this amount of scales. It is indeed very sad that these defenceless creatures are still being poached in such a cruel way. In 2018, an undercover researcher captured the horrifyingly brutal ordeal of a pangolin who was smoked out of a tree, beaten and then thrown into a pot of boiling water. Despite the pangolin’s precarious existence and a worldwide ban, National Geographic reported that pangolin scale seizures were at an all-time high in 2019.
A ‘miracle cure’ with no scientific foundation
The pangolin’s scales are used in traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) and is thought to cure everything from arthritis, to tumours, to cancer and infertility. What seems to be overlooked is the fact that the pangolin’s scales are made from keratin, the same material that our fingernails and hair are made from, and therefore possess the same medicinal value: absolutely none. Despite this, hundreds of thousands of pangolins are captured and killed each year (although the African Wildlife Foundation estimates this number at 2.7 million in Africa alone) and their scales are ground down into powders for use throughout China, Vietnam, Thailand, Laos and Myanmar. Pangolin scales and parts feature in nearly 500 prescriptions for TCM. In June this year it was reported that China had actually banned the scales in their traditional medicine, but it turned out that pangolin scales are still a key ingredient in many medicines listed in China’s 2020 pharmacopoeia, a reference book for TCM practitioners.
Pangolin meat is also considered a delicacy in Vietnam and China, and is eaten to demonstrate social status. Pangolin foetuses are sometimes consumed in soup and are thought to enhance a man’s virility. The Sunday Times reported that as many as 200,000 pangolins are consumed in Asia each year. Vietnam is now reported to be the biggest recipient of pangolin scales.
The pangolin can only give birth to one baby per year in the wild, and do not reproduce in captivity. There is no way that these helpless creatures can reproduce at the rate that they are being poached, boiled and ground into dust.
In recent months, the pangolin has come to attention as scientists in the US, China and Europe said that the pangolin could potentially be an intermediary host for coronavirus, facilitating transfer to humans. In fact, the New York Post recently reported that 56% of wild animals in Vietnam’s restaurants have a coronavirus. These “wildlife restaurants” have rats, bats, civet cats, snakes, bear, monkeys and pangolins on the menu.
What you can do to help
- Share this article on Facebook or Twitter and spread the word
- Be aware of what it is and tell people about it: The WWF recently conducted a survey in which it was revealed that only 8% of respondents had heard of a pangolin
- Report wildlife crime when abroad or in the UK: Be aware of this if travelling in Vietnam or China. You can report wildlife crime via the WWF here.
- Don’t eat pangolin meat and do not buy pangolin products: I know it can be tempting to try exotic meats when you are travelling in places like Asia. But just think of the trade that you will be fuelling by doing so.
- Contribute to the Pangolin Crisis Fund: a partnership between the Wildlife Conservation Network, Save Pangolins, and the Leonardo DiCaprio Foundation, the fund puts 100% of every donation raised directly toward pangolin conservation.