October 24th, 2017 – Rachel Bale reports in National Geographic that 101 pangolins, captured and headed to their deaths, were on a boat in Malaysia when Indonesian authorities seized the collection of priceless pangolins. These pangolins were en route to eastern Asia, where the demand for pangolin scales is high – which has led to an increase in illegal poaching of the mammal. What exactly is a pangolin, and why are they being trafficked illegally?
Pangolin: The Species
‘Pangolin’ comes from the Malay word for roller: “penggulung.” This is fitting considering the pangolin’s defense mechanism: rolling into a ball with its sharp scales elongated to fend off predators. Pangolins are small, insect-eating mammals covered in unique scales made out of keratin, the same material as human nails, comprising 20% of its body weight. Resembling a mix between an anteater and an armadillo, the pangolin feasts primarily on the insects dug up from the ground with its sharp claws. There are a range of different species that span across areas in Africa and Asia.
Overall, there are eight species of pangolin, all of which are considered to be vulnerable or endangered. Of these eight, all are protected via international law, and two are listed as Critically Endangered on the IUCN’s Red List, a list used to understand the conservation status of certain species to guide policymakers (Mace et al., 2008). Four reside in Africa: the Black-bellied pangolin, the White-bellied pangolin, the Giant Ground pangolin, and Temminck’s Ground pangolin. In Asia, the other four species include the Indian pangolin, the Phillippine pangolin, Sunda pangolin, and the Chinese pangolin, the latter two are the critically endangered species (World Wildlife Fund).
Currently, however, pangolins have surpassed elephants and rhinos, becoming the most trafficked animal in the world. Tens of thousands of these creatures are poached every year. Poaching worsens population numbers due to the slow reproductive rate of pangolins, only producing one offspring per year.
The Pangolin Black Market
Black markets are defined as the illegal sale of goods and services ranging from drugs to endangered species (Hsiang and Sekar, 2016). The black market for pangolins primarily exists in eastern Asia, with high demand in Vietnam and China. In these countries, the meat is considered a delicacy, and demand has increased despite risks of infection that occasionally occur from consuming pangolin. A common dish made with pangolin is a stew, and it is said to increase a man’s virility (Bale, 2017).
According to the Chinese Medicinal Pharmacopoeia, the scales of the pangolin are roasted and used for detoxification, arthritis, and a variety of other ailments. Since the 1990s, the price of pangolin scales has risen from £8.50/kg to £360/kg, placing the price of pangolins at around £2,000, a contributing factor to the increase in poaching (Liu and Weng, 2014) (Bale, 2017). The high price may directly correlate with the high appeal of poaching pangolins. Alas, action for pangolin conservation is active and increasing despite the occurrence of the black market.
Pangolin Conservation Efforts
Professor Sam Wasser, director of Washington University’s Center for Conservation Biology, estimates that over one million pangolins have been poached in the past decade (Allen-Mills, 2017). Wasser is working on a project to decrease illegal poaching in eastern Asia and Africa with new techniques. For example, sniffing dogs are utilized to sniff out pangolin feces in order to construct DNA maps of pangolin ranges. This will give insight to where the pangolins are being poached, and where to take action.
A study in Bangladesh, a country home to three species of pangolin, found that political unrest led to the lack of existing knowledge of pangolin distributions, creating a difficulty to research the area and the range of pangolins (Trageser et al., 2017). On the bright side, in 2016, the pangolin was listed on the CITES Appendix I, banning all trade of the small mammal. CITES, or the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora, is an international agreement whereby participating parties or governments must comply with the list of threatened species to ensure their trade does not harm population numbers (CITES). Unfortunately, poachers and buyers of pangolin could care less about the listing, and an insurmountable number of pangolins have been removed from their ecosystems.
However, it is not clear what impact pangolin loss will have on African and Asian ecosystems. In those countries, declining pangolin numbers may affect insect populations with less predation from pangolins. Less predation may also lead to impacts on soil where pangolins reside. Soil may be altered because with fewer numbers, there may be less cycling of nutrients through pangolin predation. Pangolins primarily consume insects ranging from ants to termites, by digging up mounds with its long claws, which also involves the mixing of soil nutrients. Even though research on pangolin function is scarce, the knowledge of pangolin poaching is on the rise in various countries.
As the awareness for pangolin poaching grows with more outreach and on-the-ground action, more people are learning of this horrifying loss of species. Locals in Africa are working to protect the species, and numerous groups including WWF and TRAFFIC are developing strategies to end illegal poaching. For the pangolin movement, the social side is strong with support, but research and data must be collected to understand the toll poaching is taking on various ecosystems.
101 pangolins may have been rescued, but there are thousands of others that are being traded illegally as the demand for meat and scales continues to rise.
Four of the rescued did not survive, but the rest of the bunch will be released nearby into a national park and the suspects face a prison sentence of five years, and a fine of $7,500. This incident brings with it the question of how to combat the increasing demand and illegal trade of the delicate species.
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- Bale, R. (2017) 101 Pangolins Destined for Black Market Rescued from Fishing Boat. National Geographic, [online], Available at https://news.nationalgeographic.com/2017/10/wildlife-watch-pangolins-seized-alive-indonesia/ [Accessed 1 November 2017].
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