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).
Last summer, Hong Kong seized 13.4 tons of pangolin scales from poaching operations originating from Cameroon, Nigeria and Ghana, and in December, China seized 3.1 tons from a single operation out of Nigeria. This was China's largest single seizure so far.
PR Newswire, using IFAW and Interpol reports, estimates that 420,000 pangolins have been poached and trafficked since 2015, with 2,300 whole pangolins (alive or dead), over 7,800 metric tons of frozen pangolin meat and over 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.
"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 told the BBC.
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 that current declines are unsustainable.
Due to all this, conservation agencies like the IFAW have lobbied for strong 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 species the pangolin following an IFAW-led campaign. The ban came just months after the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) passed a similar measure.
The IFAW waged a similar effort in the U.S. so the pangolin could receive protections under the Endangered Species Act, but no decision has been made.
Raising awareness in other ways
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."
In 2013, 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.
This story was originally published in March 2014 and has been updated with new information.