Pangolins are burrowing mammals that look like scaly anteaters, and they're being illegally traded at an alarming scale, despite increased protections.
These creatures, of which there are eight species, are prized for their supposed medical value in traditional Chinese practices, but the pangolin's keratin scales are medicinally useless.
Despite this, the illegal trade of the critter hasn't stopped, based on reports from the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW).
Conservation groups are taking notice and are pushing countries to protect these animals before they become extinct.
Nearly 180 nongovernmental organizations and individuals signed an appeal In May 2018 urging China to upgrade legal protection for pangolins, reports Caixin Global. Currently, China lists pangolins as a grade two National Key Protected Species. This classification means pangolins can be used and traded with official approval and 25 tons of pangolin scales can be used in medicinal products per year.
Sold for their scales
In 2016, Hong Kong seized 13.4 tons of pangolin scales from poaching operations originating from Cameroon, Nigeria and Ghana. That same year, China seized 3.1 tons from a single operation out of Nigeria. Seizures of this size have become increasingly common in recent years. In early 2019, for instance, Hong Kong authorities seized 9 tons of pangolin scales, believed to have come from 14,000 individual pangolins.
An estimated 420,000 pangolins were poached and trafficked between 2015 and 2017 alone, according to IFAW, with 2,300 whole pangolins (alive or dead), more than 7,800 metric tons of frozen pangolin meat, and more than 45,000 metric tons of pangolin scales illegally traded.
Chinese officials 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 — were seized between 2010 and 2014. According to a more recent estimate, some 20 tons of pangolins and their parts are now trafficked internationally every year.
"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, said in 2014.
Campaigns for increased protections
All eight species of pangolin — which are spread across Asia and sub-Saharan Africa — are in decline due to illegal trade. Not helping matters is that most pangolin species give birth to only one offspring per year, and conservationists warn current declines are unsustainable.
Due to all this, conservation groups like IFAW have lobbied for stronger protections for the pangolin, and they're having some success.
In 2016, the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITIES), the international body responsible for regulating the trade of endangered species, banned commercial trade of two pangolin species following an IFAW-led campaign. The ban came just months after the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) passed a similar measure. As of February 2020, the IUCN's Red List of Threatened Species classifies three pangolin species as critically endangered, two as endangered and one as vulnerable.
Raising awareness in other ways
Richard Thomas, TRAFFIC’s communication coordinator, says the animals have often been 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."
In 2013, the new Pangolin Specialist Group of the IUCN's Species Survival Commission held its first meeting to discuss how to protect the animals.
One of the group's goals was 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."
Videos like the one above, however, may be helping to soften the pangolin's image. The adorable footage from Rare and Endangered Species Trust shows a pangolin in Namibia rolling around in the mud.
Editor's note: This article has been updated with new information since it was originally published in March 2014.