Pangolins are highly intelligent, puppy-faced, cute, and cuddly armored little insect-eating creatures whose eight species live half in Africa and half in Asia. They look like animated characters created by a truly warped Disney cartoonist who crossed an artichoke with a giant carp to create the fish-like scales progressing from tiny at the tip of their noses to giant covering their broad, flat, beaver-like tails.
Known by some as “scaly anteaters,” they might be mistaken for a mutated mating of an anteater and an armadillo, but they’re not related to either.
They range in size from roughly a foot (30 cm) to just over three feet (100 cm) in length. The name pangolin comes from the Malay word meaning “something that rolls into a ball,” their defense mode when threatened. However, they truly need a stronger threat barrier.
In spite of their being relatively unknown in developed countries, pangolins have the misfortune of being the most illegally trafficked mammals on the planet. Their meat, scales, and skins command vast fortunes for organized criminal traders throughout their range in mid to southern Africa, eastern Asia and the Pacific Rim. Wildlife advocacy groups such as the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) estimate one million of the harmless little creatures are snatched from their habitat each year. Three-hundred thousand are said to be smuggled to meet China’s annual demand alone.
During May 2018, 3.3 tons of pangolin scales destined for Cambodia from Nigeria were seized in Vietnam. Two shipments – 3.1 tons and 11.9 tons – of poached scales were discovered in China the year before. Both were headed for China’s Northeast Forestry University. That same year, African authorities seized 17 tons of pangolin scales.
For thousands of years, Asian and African traditional medicine claim pangolin scales are invaluable for treating everything from calming hysterically crying children, aiding nursing mothers’ lactation, freeing women possessed by devils and ogres, draining pus, controlling asthma, curing cancer, and dozens more ailments. Medicinally, the scales are simply made of keratin, the same substance as human fingernails and void of any real medicinal value.
Pangolin meat, like mansions, hand-crafted cars, and servants, is a symbol of extreme wealth throughout China, Hong Kong, and environs. Dishes as disturbing as pangolin fetus soup are the most pricey menu items of exclusive Asian restaurants.
Pangolin scales fetch upwards of US$3000 per kilogram. US$300 will purchase a kilogram of pangolin meat. A live pangolin will go for nearly US$1000.
Asia has nearly wiped out its four now-listed as “threatened” pangolin species. That shifted the black market focus on Africa’s four species. Nigeria, Sierra Leone, Cameroon, and Uganda are the key African trafficking countries. However, seizures of pangolin products have occurred in 67 countries throughout the world.
All trade in any pangolin product was outlawed worldwide at the 2016 meeting of the Conference on International Trade in Endangered Species of Flora and Fauna (CITES). Two years later, only 17 pangolin range countries have on-the-books legislation compliant with CITES. Some 31 have nothing. Enforcement is pretty much non-existent allowing poachers to walk unpunished.
Remedial measures are proving inadequate. Pangolins are solitary creatures who meet up only to mate, then head-off on their own. They are easily stressed and do not survive well in captivity, particularly if caged. Six U.S. universities joined in a pangolin consortium to study the animals. Unfortunately, that effort while meaning well, has shown little success and generated considerable controversy over its activities. To date, that effort does not bode well for pangolin captive breeding efforts.
A handful of pangolin rescue programs in Zimbabwe, Cameroon, Uganda, Liberia, and Vietnam appear to be doing what they can to help the animals. Zimbabwe’s Tikki Hywood Foundation Sanctuary teams “minder” humans to each resident pangolin (kept uncaged). The minders literally walk their charges to insect nests in the bush daily and care for them until they are deemed ready for release.
It is safe to say that the demise of traditional medicine and greed-driven human depravity are not on anyone’s forecast. So, what’s to be done to save pangolins?
Perhaps, extinction is inevitable. Perhaps not.
Unless and until, pangolin rangeland is truly protected from poachers a large degree of “out of the box” creativity must be applied.
Creating conservation efforts, including convincing traditional medicine practitioners of the vital need for a sustainable source or substitute for pangolin scales, that generate more economic benefits than poaching is one possibility.
Another may be investigating if the genetic and land-oriented breeding, nursery, and production techniques developed by the modern aquaculture industry can be applied to pangolin captive breeding and release.
How to take the value out of black-market trafficking is the question in search of solutions!