The world’s most trafficked mammal: The Pangolin

 

–Article published by Mike Gaworecki on 2016-09-27–

–Article published in Mongabay.com–

 

  • According to a new report by San Francisco-based NGO WildAid, more than one million pangolins have been taken from the wild in the past decade, making them the world’s most-trafficked mammal.
  • Hunting and poaching of pangolins for illegal international trade — the majority of which will end up China and Vietnam — is the primary threat to pangolins, according to WildAid.
  • At its World Conservation Congress in Hawaii earlier this month, the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) voted to approve a motion in support of transferring all eight pangolin species from Appendix II to Appendix I of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Fauna and Flora (CITES), which would ban all commercial trade in pangolins.

If you had to guess, what would you say are the most trafficked mammals in the world? Apes? Elephants? Maybe even rhinos?

The answer is actually pangolins, also known as “scaly anteaters,” according to a new report by San Francisco-based NGO WildAid, which found that more than one million pangolins have been taken from the wild in the past decade, making them the world’s most-trafficked mammal.

Just last month, for instance, as many as 657 pangolins — some 2.3 metric tons-worth of the animals — were found vacuum sealed in plastic and frozen in five large freezers in a house in Indonesia.

Hunting and poaching of pangolins for illegal international trade — the majority of which will end up China and Vietnam — is the primary threat to pangolins, according to WildAid. “Overexploited by illegal trade in their keratin scales for medicine and as an exotic meat, conservationists agree that swift action is required to save these animals,” the report states.

Indeed, at its World Conservation Congress in Hawaii earlier this month, the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) voted to approve a motion in support of transferring all eight pangolin species from Appendix II to Appendix I of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Fauna and Flora (CITES), which would ban all commercial trade in pangolins.

CITES is holding its 17th Conference of Parties (COP17) right now in Johannesburg, South Africa. The IUCN motion calls for the listing of all eight pangolin species on Appendix I of the Convention “in order to contribute to the conservation and sustainability of wild populations through control of the international trade in pangolins and their parts and products.”

In particular, seizures of pangolin scales and whole animals, both live and frozen, originating from African nations have increased over the past several years, WildAid reports. Cameroon, Nigeria, Sierra Leone, South Africa, and Uganda are the primary range states for African pangolin species that are now helping to meet demand in China and Vietnam.

pangolin_defending_itself_from_lions_gir_forest_gujarat_india
Indian pangolin defending itself against Asiatic lions. Photo via Wikimedia Commons.

“Overwhelming evidence indicates that trafficking follows some of the same routes as that of elephant ivory and rhino horn,” per the report. “Some of the same criminals profiting from these trades are now shipping tons of pangolin scales to Asia.”

The increased trade in pangolins is having drastic consequences for their population numbers. In 2008, just two of the eight pangolin species were classified as endangered by the IUCN: the Sunda Pangolin and the Chinese Pangolin. But now, less than a decade later, all eight are threatened with extinction.

The Sunda Pangolin (Manis javanica) and the Chinese Pangolin (M. pentadactyla) are currently listed as Critically Endangered, while the Indian Pangolin (M. crassicaudata) and the Philippine Pangolin (M. culionensis) are listed as Endangered. All four African species — the Black-bellied Pangolin (Phataginus tetradactyla), the White-bellied Pangolin (P. tricuspis), the Giant Ground Pangolin (Smutsia gigantea), and Temminck’s Ground Pangolin (S. temminckii) — are listed as Vulnerable.

Pangolins are particularly susceptible to poaching pressures because of their slow reproductive rates, WildAid says. They’re not that hard to catch once they’re found, either, given their instinct is to curl up into a ball when threatened rather than attempting to escape. But an acute sensitivity to capture-induced stress and a highly specialized diet means that pangolins do not fare well once they are held in captivity.

Nocturnal and solitary by nature, pangolins are known to be quite elusive creatures, which makes it difficult to estimate how many still exist in the wild. But it is not just populations of African species that are being decimated. WildAid found that “hunters, traders and locals have reported drastic declines in sightings of Asian species across different parts of their range. Interviews with hunters in 2007 and 2011 suggested populations of the Sunda Pangolin in Peninsular Malaysia have fallen dramatically, with 95% of hunters recognizing severe declines, especially since 1990, when the commercial trade began to escalate.”

The middle classes emerging in China and Vietnam are driving the illegal trade in pangolins, whose meat has become a luxury item and status symbol. WildAid also discovered that 70 percent of Chinese citizens believe pangolin products have medicinal value and 66 percent have purchased government-approved medicines — pangolin scales are used to “cure” rheumatism, skin disorders, and wound infections — despite there being no scientific evidence to support the curative properties of pangolin products. China has used an estimated 25 metric tons of pangolin scales each year since 2008, sourced from a stockpile of unknown size.

In Vietnam, just eight percent of residents believe pangolins have medicinal properties, according to WildAid, but 64 percent are undecided, saying they have heard the animal’s scales can be used to increase libido and cure rheumatism, asthma, and cancer, but don’t yet know if these claims are true.

Some 96 percent of Chinese and 98 percent of Vietnamese residents believe pangolins deserve to exist, WildAid found.

“In order for pangolins to survive,” the WildAid report concludes, “they require greater protection under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) treaty by uplisting all species to Appendix I, strengthened domestic legislation in some countries, improved international law enforcement efforts, educational initiatives to raise awareness and support for their conservation, and campaigns to reduce consumption in the key markets of China and Vietnam.”

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Ground Pangolin at Madikwe Game Reserve in South Africa. Photo by David Brossard.

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