These scaly, solitary, secretive animals have found themselves unfortunate victims of wildlife trade and are now one of the most trafficked animals on Earth
Covered in scales made of keratin, pangolins are curious little creatures. They scurry around the forest floors on a never-ending search for ants, consuming up to 23,000 of the insects per day – that’s more than seven million ants in a year. Although they’re commonly referred to as scaly anteaters and likened to armadillos, they actually have very little in common with either.
The name pangolin comes from the Malay word ‘penggulung’ meaning roller, a nod to the animal’s defensive tactic of instantly curling into a ball when they’re frightened, in a bid to protect their un-scaled undersides. Pangolins are burrowing mammals and make their homes by using their long claws to sift through the soil and their stout bodies to rock from side to side, creating a space to settle down in.
The illegal trade has mostly been driven by high demand and high profit. It’s estimated that demand in China amounts to 200,000 individual pangolins per year, earning them the not-so-glamorous title of the most trafficked mammal on Earth. The price of scales on the black market can fetch anything up to £500 per kilogram (around £227 per pound), and this figure is steadily rising.
At present, pangolin conservation seems to be stuck in a vicious circle; as the number of remaining pangolins decreases, their commercial value on the black market increases, which further fuels the demand for pangolins as a status of wealth, and ultimately increases poaching efforts to fulfil the demand.
This scaly species worth is worth saving!
There are eight species of pangolin, all of which are vulnerable. Pangolins are the world’s only scaly mammals, and are unusual in that they have no teeth and grind their food with keratin spikes in their stomachs. There are eight species of pangolin: four species in Asia, and four in Africa. There is a genetic difference between Asian and African pangolins, but it’s easy to tell them apart visually by the presence of bristles between the scales, found only on Asian pangolins.
Regardless of where they are from, all pangolins bumble around on their hind legs, hunched over, tucking their fore claws underneath their body. They have amazingly sticky tongues, longer than their combined head and body length, which are attached to their pelvis and held in the chest cavity when resting. They use this nifty tool to quickly and efficiently clean out ant and termite nests.
In Chinese folklore, pangolins are said to be special, with the ability to travel around the world undetected using a network of tunnels. The Cantonese word for pangolin translates as ‘the animal that digs through the mountains’. It’s now more important than ever to find a way to save the pangolin. On the whole, we know very little about these nocturnal and secretive animals. They are mysterious and difficult to study in the wild; we don’t even know their life span. But, we do know they are extremely difficult to care for in captivity, so conserving them in the wild is vital.
Eaten to extinction
With the constant threat of poaching, the life of a pangolin is uncertain. Undoubtedly, the main threat pangolins face is from hunting. Their shy nature and lack of defence mechanisms have left them vulnerable to poachers and the pangolin trade in 2013 was estimated at £66-100 million ($98-148 million). Most are caught to fulfil the demand in China and southeast Asia, where pangolin meat is considered a delicacy and the Chinese pangolin is in danger of being ‘eaten to extinction’.
The meat is also believed to have medicinal properties and is used to treat a number of ailments, including gastro-intestinal problems, cardiac complaints and back pain. The scales are ground up as a cure for skin diseases, burn wounds, and used as a cure for pneumonia, despite no proven pharmacological qualities. The rate at which pangolins are being harvested is particularly alarming because of their life history. Pangolins mate once a year, have a gestation period of 150 days, usually give birth to just one pangopup, and it takes two years for the young to reach sexual maturity and leave their mothers. This slow growth and low reproductive rate means poaching can have devastating effects and make recovery almost impossible.
The true extent of the trade is yet to be determined and information is somewhat limited and inconsistent. This is partly due to the wide geographical range of the pangolin, and a targeted effort to uncover the magnitude of the problem is tricky to implement on such a large scale. Currently, estimates are only based on the few people caught trafficking the animals and the decline in the number seen in the wild.
Stewart Muir is a director for the Whitley Wildlife Conservation Trust. He has passionately supported pangolin conservation for many years…
Why are pangolins so endangered?
Pangolins are now the most heavily-traded wild mammal in the world. The scales covering their body are in great demand for traditional medicine in Africa, Asia and particularly in China. Pangolins are inoffensive, insect-eating creatures that roll into a ball when threatened. This makes them very easy to catch by poachers using wire snares or trained dogs. Many of them are transported alive for many days until they reach their final destination. Even those that are rescued are lucky to survive. Their insect diet of live ants makes caring for them, until they are strong enough to be released back into the wild, difficult and complicated.
What do you think makes pangolins so desirable to poachers, and can they ever be stopped?
Ease of capture and transportation together with a high demand is proving fatal for the pangolins. The four African and four Asian species are all under a high degree of threat. Recently, the amount of protection through CITES (Convention of International Trade of Endangered Species) has increased – certainly all of the Asian species at least are now listed on the IUCN Red List as Endangered or Critically Endangered, therefore increasing their protection, if only by law. However, as the pangolins become less common, their price and the risks that poachers are willing to take goes up. Effective law enforcement is important but getting local people to support and protect pangolins is vital.
What work and research are you currently involved in?
I became aware of the serious problems facing the pangolin 15 years ago and we established the first conservation and rehabilitation centre at Cuc Phuong National Park in Vietnam. In the beginning, it was hard to get people to listen. Most people had never heard of a pangolin and were unaware of the scale of the problem. My own organisation and many other zoos have raised funds and worked together, supporting the Vietnamese team at the Carnivore and Pangolin Conservation Programme and, more recently, the newly-established Save Vietnam’s Wildlife. Over time, we have learnt a lot about keeping and maintaining the animals on their road to recovery. Just getting the pangolins to survive long enough to make a healthy return to the wild has been a major achievement that has taken many years.
How do you think pangolin populations will fare in the next 50 years?
As pangolins become more scarce, their commercial value will increase and their decline will become ever more rapid. Only through concentrated international efforts to protect them and educating people to reduce the demand will we save these charming and defenceless animals from extinction.
How can World of Animals readers get actively involved with helping to conserve the dwindling pangolin populations?
The best thing that World of Animals readers can do is talk about pangolins – have your friends even heard of them and do they know how much trouble they are in? Pangolins need friends. You can directly support a project in Vietnam through the Save Vietnam’s Wildlife website www.savevietnamswildlife.org and also support the work of the IUCN Pangolin Specialist Group.
Meet the other organisations fighting for pangolin survival
Comprising a voluntary network of 65 members, including biologists, zoologists and geneticists, the IUCN Species Survival Commission (SSC) Pangolin Specialist Group is increasing understanding of pangolins through world-leading research and action. It is the advisory group to the IUCN on pangolins and offers guidance to organisations around the world. Current projects include: estimating levels of the illegal pangolin trade, developing improved ecological monitoring methods, patrol-based monitoring at sites with a high abundance of the species and reducing demand for pangolin products in east Asian markets.
The African Pangolin Working Group (APWG) was established in 2011 by a group of people who shared a passion for pangolins. The group is involved in a number of ongoing projects, such as mapping the distribution of pangolins in Africa, both in the past and the present, so it can closely monitor any unexpected changes in range. It is also researching the customs surrounding certain species in South African tribal communities, and the threats and effects of parasites. Aside from research, APWG is part of rehabilitation programmes and law enforcement to try and combat the rapid decline of African pangolin species.
This nonprofit organisation is working on the front line to rescue, rehabilitate and release pangolins confiscated from the illegal wildlife trade back into the wild. Working in partnership with Cuc Phuong National Park, it is able to secure enough suitable habitat for rescued pangolins to roam free. The ultimate goal is to end poaching and reach a state of harmony between pangolins and local Vietnamese residents. The organisation also works to increase pangolin numbers by developing global conservation breeding programmes.
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