Pangolins, world's most trafficked mammal, get international protection

September 29, 2016, 10:50 a.m.
Pangolin walking
Photo: 2630ben/Shutterstock

There are eight species of pangolin found in Asia and Africa, and all of them are threatened or endangered due to poaching for the wildlife trade and habitat loss. These slow-moving nocturnal mammals are hunted for their scales, which are used in Chinese medicine, and their meat is considered a delicacy. Between January and September of this year, authorities confiscated more than 18,000 tons of Pangolin scales across 19 countries, the BBC reports, and pangolins make up about one fifth of all illegal animal trade.

But now, there's good news for these creatures. Commercial trade of the pangolin has been officially banned by the international body responsible for regulating the trade of endangered species, the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora, or CITES.

"The decision of the CITES Parties to ban the international commercial trade in pangolin parts will give the world’s most-trafficked mammal a fighting chance at survival," Elly Pepper, the deputy director of the Natural Resource Defense Council's wildlife trade initiative, wrote in a statement.

"Pangolin scales are made of the same stuff as your fingernails; contrary to the beliefs of some, they hold no medicinal value," Pepper continued. "These vulnerable, elusive creatures must be protected immediately if we hope to reverse their astronomical declines of up to 90 percent. This listing will not only eradicate legal trade in pangolins, but will also reduce the illegal trade for which the U.S. is a significant destination and transshipment point."

These "artichokes with legs," as one NPR reporter described them, have captured scientists' fascination for years with their aardvark-like qualities. (They have long, sticky tongues, and ants are their favorite foods.) But researchers have finally figured out what's behind some of the pangolin's unique features.

Looking something like a cross between a skink and an armadillo, pangolins are the only mammals that are entirely covered in scales. This combined with other unique features have made it difficult for scientists to figure out what's going on with pangolins genetically. New research from Smithsonian scientists sheds some light on the genetic makeup of pangolins.

According to the Smithsonian National Zoo:

Recently published in the August edition of Genome Research, this study compared the genetic makeup of both Malayan and Chinese pangolins to those of other more discernible mammals. The scientists learned that sets of pseudogenes (or copies of genes that no longer function) are responsible for some of pangolins’ more curious characteristics, for example, their lack of teeth. Most surprisingly, the study found that unlike most other mammals a gene associated with the skin’s ability to fight disease does not function in pangolins. This suggests that instead, their scales were developed to serve as armor to defend against predators.

Check out Save Pangolins for ways you can help protect these fascinating and special animals.

Editor's note: This story has been updated since it was originally published on September 2, 2016.