Pangolins are burrowing mammals that look like scaly anteaters, and they're being illegally traded at a "shocking" scale, according to a recent report.
There are eight different species of pangolin, and the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species forbids all trade in the four Asian species and limits trade of the four African ones.
However, these protections have done little to halt poaching of the animals whose meat is considered a delicacy in Asia and whose scales are used in traditional Chinese medicine.
No one knows exactly how many pangolins are sold each year, but it probably numbers in the tens of thousands, according to wildlife trade monitoring network TRAFFIC.
Chinese officials recently worked with University of Oxford researchers to examine the scope of the trade, and the team uncovered records that 2.59 tons of scales — representing almost 5,000 pangolins — have been seized since 2010.
"The numbers of pangolins traded are shocking, and all the more so considering the pharmaceutical pointlessness of the trade. This trade is intolerably wasteful," David Macdonald, director of Oxford's Wildlife Conservation Research Unit, told the BBC.
Pangolin scales are made of keratin and are medicinally useless, but in traditional Chinese medicine they're believed to stimulate lactation and to detoxify.
All eight species of pangolin are in decline due to illegal trade, but the Chinese pangolin and Malaysia's Sunda pangolin could soon face extinction.
Most pangolin species give birth to only one offspring per year, and conservationists warn that current declines are unsustainable.
Richard Thomas, TRAFFIC’s communication coordinator, says the animals are often overlooked in conservation efforts.
"Poor old pangolins are a bit of a forgotten species. There's been a lot of attention to the big iconic animals — elephants, rhinos, tigers — but not much attention to pangolins."
Last year the new Pangolin Specialist Group of the International Union for the Conservation of Nature's Species Survival Commission held its first meeting to discuss how to protect the animals.
One of the group's goals is to reduce demand for pangolins by raising awareness of their plight and making the animals seem more "charismatic," which could prove difficult for a species often described as a "walking artichoke."
However, videos like the one below should help soften the pangolin's image. The adorable footage from Rare and Endangered Species Trust shows a pangolin in Namibia rolling around in the mud.
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