The World’s Most Trafficked Mammal Just Got Desperately Needed Help

Proposals to ban international trade in pangolins received support from a body charged with helping to conserve wildlife.

JOHANNESBURG, SOUTH AFRICA- Things have suddenly looked up for pangolins, cat-size scaly creatures found across Asia and sub-Saharan Africa. The body that regulates international wildlife trade voted Wednesday to shut down sales of pangolins and their parts across borders.

“This decision will help give pangolins a fighting chance,” says Sue Lieberman, vice president of international policy for the Wildlife Conservation Society, a nonprofit based in New York City.

Some 3,000 government representatives and conservationists are in South Africa this week to discuss how to best save animals through the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES), the body, composed of 183 governments, that sets wildlife trade policy.

The discussion to ban trade in pangolins ranks high on the CITES agenda, up there with proposals related to iconic animals such as elephants and rhinos. Pangolins gained some recognition a few years ago when wildlife experts pegged them as the most trafficked mammal on Earth, though they're still largely unknown outside conservation circles.

At today’s CITES meeting, governments agreed to give all eight species of Asian and African pangolins the highest level of protection. That means the commercial trade in pangolins and their parts is banned outright. (Related: “What's Next For the World's Most Trafficked Mammal”)

Pangolins are shy, harmless animals that have an armor of scales and long, sticky tongues to slurp up ants and termites. Apparently, they also inspired the creation of the popular Pokémon Sandshrew. When threatened they curl into a ball instead of attempting to escape, an unfortunate trait for a species facing dire threats from pangolin-collecting humans.

The creatures are hunted for bush meat in Africa, but more often they’re poached to supply demand for their scales in Vietnam and China, where new wealth has led to demand for the parts of rare, exotic animals. Some people in these countries consider pangolin meat a delicacy and use their scales in traditional medicine. There’s even a dish called pangolin fetus soup, thought to enhance a man’s virility.

All eight pangolin species are being killed at alarming rates. Many of the nations they inhabit have some laws protecting them, and CITES restricted their international trade. Yet according to wildlife experts, almost a million pangolins have been trafficked during the past decade. (Also see “Four Tons of 'Plastics' Discovered to Be Pangolin Scales”)

At first poachers targeted the four species in Asia, but as numbers of those have diminished, traders have begun targeting the four species in Africa. No one knows exactly how many pangolins remain, but the International Union for the Conservation of Nature, which sets the conservation status of plants and animals, lists all eight species as endangered or threatened with extinction. Pangolins also have to contend with habitat loss and a low reproductive rate: Females produce only one baby a year.

“The present scale of trade could drive this species to extinction,” said the representative from India, one of the nations that proposed increased protections.

Since 1995 CITES has restricted trade pangolins, meaning that traders could only transport them across borders if the exporting nation decided it wouldn’t harm the species. In 2000 Asian countries decided not to allow any exports of pangolins or their parts, but it’s believed that this helped spur hunting of pangolins in Africa, where pangolins are faring slightly better. And domestic laws protecting pangolins in many countries aren’t enforced.\

Pangolin scales are used in traditional medicine in Vietnam and China.
PHOTOGRAPH BY CEDRIC
ANDELYANE JACQUET

“The criminal networks are running circles around everybody,” says Chris Shepherd of TRAFFIC, the organization that monitors the wildlife trade. “It’s a joke.”

In Africa, pangolin trafficking has become increasingly organized as smugglers have become exposed to people in the illicit elephant ivory business. “Dealing back to traffickers in China has exposed them to new people, allowing them to build the necessary networks to move up and start trafficking ivory,” Ofir Drori, director of the wildlife law enforcement network EAGLE, told Vice in September.

The Asian pangolin proposals passed today with only a single “no” vote (from Indonesia), and the African pangolin proposals passed by consensus. The proposals face a final decision when the countries vote again next week, but given the initial near unanimity on this first round, it’s likely they’ll sail through.

Indonesia argued that banning international trade in Sunda and Chinese pangolins would only increase demand. The representative said that enforcement, not a prohibition on trade, is what’s needed to help pangolins.

Scott Roberton, of the Wildlife Conservation Society, agrees that enforcement continues to remain a priority, but he says the added protections will help pangolins by allowing demand countries to enact harsher laws and simplifying efforts for law enforcement. “It’s very clear now,” he says, referring to the ban. “It’s black and white.”

The ban would also tighten regulations for any pangolin breeding operations, says Roberton, something that’s been attempted before despite poor outcomes. Several organizations, including the World Association of Zoos and Aquariums, say that pangolins can't be raised in captivity with success. Their specialized diets and low reproductive rates make it too difficult.

“The key thing now with this new listing is that countries need to implement it and enforce it,” Roberton says.

This story was produced by National Geographic’s Special Investigations Unit, which focuses on wildlife crime and is made possible by grants from the BAND Foundation and the Woodtiger Fund. Read more stories from the SIU on Wildlife Watch. Send tips, feedback, and story ideas to ngwildlife@ngs.org.

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