World Pangolin Day is celebrated this weekend: Saturday, February 16th.
Last year tens-of-thousands of elephants and hundreds of rhinos were butchered to feed the growing appetite of the illegal wildlife trade.
This black market, largely centered in East Asia, also devoured tigers, sharks, leopards, turtles, snakes and hundreds of other animals. Estimated at $19 billion annually, the booming trade has periodically captured global media attention, even receiving a high-profile speech by U.S. Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton, last year.
But the biggest mammal victim of the wildlife trade is not elephants, rhinos, or tigers, but an animal that receives little notice and even less press: the pangolin. If that name doesn’t ring a bell, you’re not alone.
“Most people don’t know what a pangolin is,” says, Rhishja Cota-Larson, founder and director of Project Pangolin, along with other initiatives focused on rhinos.
It’s perhaps not a surprise that pangolins are little known by the public, since scientists are also in the dark. Nocturnal and notoriously shy, pangolins are rarely seen let alone studied. Scientists readily admit that the private lives of pangolins remain largely that: private. Still there’s another reason why this animal is little-known: government and big NGO ambivalence.
“Conservation actions are primarily focused on large mammals (generally the charismatic species) and ignore the pressing issues of small mammals and lower profile species,” says Ambika Khatiwada, who is studying the Chinese pangolin in Nepal. “The government and other organizations working in the field […] do not have adequate plans for the conservation of small mammals which has resulted in limited information regarding ecology, threats and other conservation issues related to pangolins.”
Still, as they begin to vanish—in a massive slaughter across East Asia—attention is turning a few degrees toward pangolins.
Recently, renowned naturalist and and filmmaker, David Attenborough, selected the pangolin as one of ten species he would save from extinction on his BBC special Attenborough’s Ark, noting that the pangolin “is one of the most endearing animals I’ve met.” In 1956, Attenborough saved a pangolin from a stew pot in Bali, later releasing it into the forest.
Meanwhile the Zoological Society of London’s (ZSL) has added two pangolin species (out of eight) to their EDGE program of the world’s most distinct and endangered mammals. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) has kick-started started a conservation and research group devoted solely to these enigmatic animals.
Saving pangolins shouldn’t be a hard-sell to the general public, because as Cota-Larson says, they have an “irresistible cute factor.” In addition, if endangerment means anything, no mammal is found so frequently in the markets, restaurants, and shops that make up East Asia’s notorious illegal wildlife trade.
“Pangolins are by far the most common species of mammal in international trade, with animals being taken from all across Asia to meet the demand for use in traditional medicines, and for meat, largely in China,” says Chris Shepherd, the Deputy Regional Director in Southeast Asia of TRAFFIC, an organization devoted to fighting illegal wildlife crime.
Giving that pangolins are vanishing at massive rates, it’s more important than ever that this Saturday (February 16th) is the Second Annual World Pangolin Day.
Introducing: pangolin peculiar
“I was first drawn to pangolins in 2005 when I was about to head to South Africa to volunteer on a game reserve,” says Dan Challender who is now working on a PhD focusing on the pangolin trade. “Flicking through a field guide to African mammals, they were about the craziest animals I could find in there, in terms of their appearance, morphology and generally how unusual they were and I hoped to see one in the bush.”
If you want to picture a pangolin think of a small anteater and then cover it in scaly armor, such as you might imagine on a dragon. Along with these telltale scales, the pangolin has a long snout, with a supple tongue for efficiently gobbling thousands of ants and termites; it sports long claws to dig up termite mounds and walks on its knuckles to keep these claws in prime shape; in addition pangolins have skunk-like anal scent glands to repel predators.
Strong as a five-limbed circus acrobat (counting their prehensile tail), pangolins are incredible tree-climbers and, even more surprisingly, excellent swimmers. But perhaps, the pangolins most famous behavior is its ability to roll up into a scaly ball, an excellent defense against non-human predators. In fact, the word pangolin comes from the Malay word ‘penggulung,’ which means ‘roller.’ These seemingly hodge-podge traits have made pangolins successful enough to conquer two continents with the eight species split evenly between Asia and Africa.
Challender never did see his pangolin in the wild in South Africa, but has since worked with pangolins throughout Asia and was a driving force in setting up the IUCN Pangolin Specialist Group.
If the general appearance of pangolins isn’t weird enough, their place on the mammal tree of life is just as surprising. Although they look like an anteater in scale-mail, it turns out pangolins are not at all related to anteaters. Instead, recent genetic evidence has found that their closest relatives are actually carnivores, despite the fact that pangolins completely lack one thing all carnivores have: teeth. And, of course, pangolin don’t eat meat in the conventional sense, but gobble up insects. Not surprisingly then, pangolins and carnivores are only distantly related: the scaly anteaters split from carnivores an incredible 70 million years ago, meaning that the world’s eight pangolins occupy a wholly unique place on Earth. Taxonomists have even given them their own order: Pholidota.
This make pangolins a prime example of what scientists call convergent evolution. Although wholly unrelated to the Americas’ anteaters, the pangolin has evolved a similar body type, including hefty claws, long snout, and long maneuverable tongue. Both animals—pangolins and anteaters—do nothing but eat insects like ants and termites, and it appears that this diet favors certain traits to the point that two completely different mammal families on alien continents could look almost like twins, albeit one hairy and one scaly.
Despite their numerous oddities, including the fact that they are the only mammal in the world with proper scales, pangolins have not been widely studied by scientists. Challender says when he first started looking into pangolins they “seemed almost forgotten if you will, compared to other arguably more charismatic species.”
This neglect has meant that researchers need to begin at square one when it comes to pangolin research.
“We know very little about their role in the ecosystem,” says Shepherd. “We do know they play an important role as a predator on ants and termites, but beyond that our knowledge is quite limited. More research is needed to better understand the role these species play, and the impact the mass removal of pangolins for commercial trade is having on the ecosystems around us.”
But young researchers are jumping on the pangolin wagon. While Challender is working to understand the illicit pangolin trade, Ambika Khatiwada, an EDGE Fellow working with Nepal’s National Trust for Nature Conservation (NTNC), is kickstarting the first pangolin-focused camera trap project in Nepal. He and his team are setting up automated camera traps near pangolin dens, hoping to catch the shy animals on camera and learn something about their nocturnal wanderings.
“The cameras will be placed 24 hours a day at least for 15 days at the same location. The opportunistic locations will be identified by their [pangolins signs] like burrows, footprints and scats,” he says. Khatiwada will also be interviewing locals on their knowledge and perception of pangolins.
“We hope that this research will be very helpful [in drafting a] pangolin conservation action plan for Nepal,” he notes. Such action plans are needed across pangolin ranges in Asia, if the species aren’t to wink out one-by-one.
Hungry for pangolin
This pangolin fetus is considered a delicacy. Photo courtesy of TRAFFIC.
For millions of years the pangolin has depended on its scales to keep it safe. Made of keratin, like human fingernails and rhino horn, the scales become strong and sharp as pangolins age, providing them with tough protection against a forest full of predators. A single pangolin can sport up to around 1,000 individually fitting scale and when they roll into a ball they present a predator with a set of armor that any medieval knight would have envied. But the pangolins scales—unique in the world—have become its recent downfall.
“The plight of the pangolin is similar to rhinos in that their most distinguishing physical characteristic is also driving them down a road to extinction,” explains Cota-Larson. “Pangolin scales are touted as a treatment for all sorts of things: To promote menstruation, promote lactation, to treat rheumatism and arthritis, to reduce swelling and discharge pus.”
Cota-Larson adds that the “the medicinal efficacy of pangolin scales is unproven.” In fact, it may be that consuming pangolin scales is little more beneficial than eating one’s own fingernails, since both are made of keratin.
Now there are even claims that pangolin scales are effective against cancer. But this is a common story that appears to shows up whenever illegal traders want to increase demand and hence prices, trusting that the sick and the desperate will be willing to pay anything.
While demand is greatest for the scales, pangolin meat is also popular and believed to have general health benefits. The meat from pangolin fetuses is considered a delicacy. In East Asia, one can often order pangolin in restaurants; Shepherd says eating pangolin meat in China or Vietnam often “confers status” on the customer, much like wearing fur was once seen as higher-class in the west.
Pangolin scales. Photo courtesy of: TRAFFIC.
“Eating illegal meat is a sign of being above the law, and of being able to afford such a meal,” he notes.
No one knows exactly how big the illegal trade in pangolins has become, but it is undeniably massive and entirely unsustainable.
“Since 2000, a minimum of tens of thousands of animals have been traded in each year internationally, from countries ranging from Pakistan to Indonesia in Asia and from Zimbabwe to Guinea in Africa,” says Dan Challender. International trade in pangolins has been banned by CITES since 2000; in addition pangolins are listed as a ‘protected species’ in every Asian home state, except Brunei. Still the trade—wholly condemned by the law both internationally and nationally—has only increased.
In 2010, TRAFFIC released a report that estimated that one criminal syndicate in the Malaysian state of Sabah was responsible for taking 22,000 pangolins over 18 months. Meanwhile in 2011 it was estimated that 40,000-60,000 pangolins were stolen from the wild in Vietnam alone. But total estimates are largely guesses based on seizures of pangolins by law enforcement, which may only represent 10 percent of the total trade.
“As the trade is illegal, making any accurate estimates of the size of the trade is impossible,” says Shepherd. “It can be said, however, that the trade is great enough that these once widespread and common species have now been all but wiped out completely in many parts of their former range.”
The trade is driven primarily by two countries: Vietnam and China. Notably, these two are also the primary drivers of the illegal trade in rhino horn and play a major role in tiger and ivory trade as well.
“Despite China being a party to CITES, the bulk of the pangolins taken from the wilds in Southeast Asia have illegally entered into China unchecked,” says Shepherd.
The trade has already pushed two pangolin species (the Chinese and Sunda pangolin) up the IUCN Red List to Endangered. The other two Asian species (the Philippine and the Indian) are considered Near Threatened.
Pangolin confiscated in Indonesia. Photo courtesy of: TRAFFIC.
Given that pangolins are nocturnal, small, burrowing, and rarely seen, hunters have had to devise ingenious methods, some used for centuries, to collect the mammals.
“Poachers often use dogs to seek out pangolins, especially in areas where pangolin populations have already be reduced,” says Shepherd. “Seasoned poachers, however, are very skilled in finding these animals, with some claiming to be able to find them by scent!”
Meanwhile, the EDGE program notes on their website that in northern China, pangolins are usually caught after emerging from winter burrowing. When bought at the market “[pangolins] are then killed by crushing the skull, after which the tongue is quickly cut and bled so the warm blood can be drunk as a tonic.”
Once caught pangolins are sometimes kept alive until sold. Living conditions can be harsh. Recently it has been reported by Cota-Larson’s Project Pangolin that the animals are often force-fed starches in order to rapidly increase their weight.
“The procedure must be done carefully and skillfully because if the spout is inserted incorrectly, into the windpipe for example, the starch could kill the pangolin instantly,” according to Education for Nature-Vietnam.
TRAFFIC has also reported that starches are injected under the skin of pangolins in order to fatten them up artificially.
But pangolin trading comes in many different sizes and methods. Khatiwada tells the story of how an illegal trader enlisted a local community into catching pangolins for him.
“One trader in Nangkholyang village [arrived pretending to be a] simple businessman to sell women’s [cosmetics] and started talking innocently about pangolin scales. He motivated the villagers to collect pangolin scales ensuring incentives in monetary form. Ultimately, he was able to collect about 15-20 kilogram of pangolin scales from the village,” says Khatiwada, who heard the story from an anonymous source. “This scenario reflects the serious threat to pangolin for its long-term survival in its natural habitat.”
Where those scales ended up no one knows. But just last year, Nepalese officials arrested a man passing into China with 50 kilograms of scales.
“There may be more cases of illegal trade but we don’t have sufficient information,” Khatiwada notes.
Illegal Indonesian processing plant for pangolins. Photo courtesy of: TRAFFIC.
Hard data on the pangolin trade is, like the pangolin itself, elusive. No one really knows how many pangolins are left nor how many exactly are being traded. But Shepherd says we don’t need such data, to know that the trade is beginning to take a worrisome toll on some species.
“A few years ago seizures of 15-20 tonnes were being made by authorities, but more recently seizures typically involve less than 100 animals. This, and anecdotal information from traders and hunters, strongly suggests that pangolins in Asia are in very serious trouble. Any animal that reproduces as slowly as pangolins do will not be able to withstand such extreme harvest pressures.”
The illegal wildlife trade isn’t the only threat to pangolins, they also face vast deforestation across Southeast Asia, which is imperiling all of the region’s forest-dependent species. According to Conservation International, Southeast Asia’s forests are the most imperiled in the world: only 5 percent of the region’s original forests intact. Meanwhile just 7 percent of the forests of the Philippines, Malaysia, and Indonesia remain untouched. Logging, industrial plantations and agriculture, mining, and booming human populations have all taken their toll.
Khatiwada notes that even in Nepal, where forest cover is still generally robust compared to Southeast Asia, the pangolins are losing habitat to a number of activities including booming human populations, roads, forest fires, mining, and cardamom plantations.
So, what happens if pangolins vanish from Asia? If history offers any perspective, it won’t stop there. The wildlife trade for rhinos seamlessly moved into Africa, once the big mammals vanished almost entirely from Asia. The same could happen to pangolins. With four of the world’s pangolin species found in Africa, there are already some signs that poaching has begun.
“At the moment, African pangolin species are less commonly trafficked to China. However, it would not be surprising if this activity escalates as the Asian pangolin species become more scarce,” explains Cota-Larson. “For example, tigers and the Asian rhino species were depleted first. Now, African lion bones are substituted for tiger bones, and African rhino horn is smuggled to consumer markets in Asia.”
African pangolins, comprising four species, are already hunted locally for bushmeat and medicine. One of species, the tree pangolin is currently listed as Near Threatened, largely due to over-hunting locally. If the Asian pangolin trade were to expand fully into Africa its likely these species would be wiped out as quickly as those in Asia.
“Overall, more resources and efforts are urgently needed to prevent the African pangolins from reaching the state the four Asian species are in,” says Shepherd. “The recent formation of the IUCN SSC Pangolin Specialist Group is a great step in the right direction and will hopefully be able to facilitate and catalyze much needed work, but the fate of pangolins still largely relies on the commitment of governments to seriously crack down on the trade and on the consumers to choose not to buy pangolin parts.”
Project Pangolin last year reported busts of illegal pangolin trading in Kenya, Zimbabwe, and Uganda. But again those only involved poachers that were caught.
“All we really know is that pangolins in Asia are being decimated, and that as these populations disappear, traders are shifting their sites towards Africa,” says Shepherd.
The captive conundrum
Pangolins held in a cage at a market. Photo courtesy of: TRAFFIC.
Elephants and tigers will not vanish from the Earth anytime soon. Even if poachers managed to tragically kill the world’s remaining wild tigers and elephants, enough of these animals remain in captivity (in fact more tigers are in captivity today than in the wild) that there would be a chance these iconic species would be re-introduced into the wild, just as the Arabian oryx is being re-introduced today after being hunted to extinction in the wild. But pangolins do not have the insurance policy of a robust captive population, putting total extinction that much closer.
“Based on my knowledge there are probably less than 100 Asian pangolins in captivity at the moment at a range of institutions,” explains Challender. “They are particularly hard to keep in captive environments, let alone breed, mainly because of their specialist diet of ants and termites. Replicating this diet has proved particularly challenging with the animals often suffering from stress as a result.”
For example, Khatiwada says that the longest surviving pangolin at the Central Zoo of Nepal, Kathmandu could be counted in months not years: nine months to be exact.
“Because of 100 percent mortality in the captivity there are no more pangolins at the zoo at present,” he notes. Since 2011, the zoo’s policy is now to re-release captive pangolins back into wild instead of attempting a captive population.
In the few cases where keepers are able to keep pangolins alive and happy, breeding in captivity is next to impossible.
“Only a few zoos, after investing great amounts of time, effort and financial resources, have ever managed to breed pangolins in captivity. To date, less than 10 pangolins have ever been bred in captivity,” explains Shepherd. “These animals are not suited to captivity, and definitely not suitable for commercial captive-breeding.”
This situation means that pangolins have not become “farmed” in Asia like bears and tigers, despite some claims to the contrary in Southeast ASia.
“Upon investigation, all of these claims have been proven to be false,” says Shepherd, adding, “some species (like chickens) do breed well in captivity at a commercial scale. Pangolins are not one of these.”
Even pangolins rescued from the clutches of a poacher or trader have their own problems. Challender says that rescued pangolins often suffer fatal stomach ulcers due to the stress of their captivity, meaning when authorities make a bust containing live pangolins—which is not unusual—these individuals usually succumb shortly thereafter.
But the Carnivore and Pangolin Conservation Programme (CPCP) in Vietnam is hoping to change this. The organization is currently spear-heading a project to determine how best to rehabilitate rescued pangolins and even release them back where the belong: the forest. Monitoring the behavior of rescued pangolins, the researchers are looking for natural behavior—such as adept tree-climbing and digging—to find suitable suspects to be released back into Cat Tien National Park.
While the inability to breed in captivity, means pangolins have largely been able to avoid the drudgery of being “farmed.” But this also means conservationists have no back-up plan if a species is consumed into extinction. In addition, this means that every pangolin scale and hunk of meat entering the illegal trade comes from one place: the wild.
All of this—massive illegal trade, loss of habitat, little attention, and captivity issues—leaves the world’s pangolins in a very precarious position that could become catastrophic without warning. But that doesn’t mean there isn’t hope. With active conservation efforts, hundreds of species have been brought back from even gloomier states. The good news is that basic laws are already in place: hunting or selling pangolins is illegal across East Asia, including the two hotspots: China and Vietnam. So, what needs to happen now?
“Saving pangolins is going to require a multi-pronged approach,” says Shepherd. “Governments need to commit to increasing enforcement efforts to shut the trade down at all links along the chain. Poachers, middlemen, and large-scale traders. Penalties should be severe enough to serve as effective deterrents.”
Pangolin scales in Indonesia. Photo courtesy of TRAFFIC.
Like many other species falling into the illegal wildlife trade trap, Shepherd and other experts suggest a mix of stepping-up law enforcement efforts and working on stemming demand.
“Sentencing to the full extent of the law” is also needed, according to Cota-Larson. Poachers and traders are often let go with more than a slap-on-the-wrist even in countries where laws are strong. This is starting to change for more well-known animals—such as tigers and rhinos—but pangolin dealers are still getting away with it.
“Pangolin traders continue to operate with very little fear of serious penalties. Most pangolin traders that are caught have the animals confiscated, but do not receive a penalty that will sever as a deterrent. Many are not convicted at all. If enforcement efforts were sufficient, pangolins would not be in the critical state they are in now,” explains Shepherd.
Cracking down on pangolin poachers and dealers would help, but nothing would fix the problem in the long-term like cutting demand. If pangolin scales, meat, and even fetuses weren’t in demand, all eight species would be relatively secure. Reducing demand isn’t impossible. Demand for whale meat has fallen so far after a global ban and decades of campaigning that Japan practically has to give it away. The global fur trade across the northern Hemisphere has largely run out of steam, as well, as synthetic fabrics and anti-fur campaigning made good. Conservationists hope that same could happen in East Asia one day, but it means fighting a long war–with multiple strategies–not a single battle.
“Raising awareness amongst traditional medicine practitioners […] is absolutely key to reducing the demand, and to ultimately pulling these species back from the verge of extinction. More research into alternatives to pangolin parts should be carried out in conjunction with widespread demand reduction campaigning,” says Shepherd, who notes that there are already some alternatives to pangolin scale in the traditional Chinese medicine market.
Chinese pangolin at the Taipei Zoo. Photo courtesy of ZSL EDGE.
In addition Shepherd says it’s time for consumers to “face the music.”
“Awareness amongst the public needs to be greatly raised, especially amongst potential consumer groups. People need to become responsible consumers and refuse to buy pangolin parts and derivatives. Further to that, we need the public to become more actively involved in pangolin conservation,” Shepherd says, who adds that concerned citizens can play an active role in saving pangolins.
“Call on your government to take pangolin poaching and trade issues seriously. Refuse to spend money at restaurants or traditional medicine outlets that do sell pangolin parts and derivatives. Support pangolin conservation initiatives.”
Challender, however, says there is final issue that needs attention, if we are to preserve the pangolin in the short term: establishing pangolin safe spots.
“There is a need to identify natural habitats where they exist and provide positive incentives for their conservation […] This is particularly challenging however, given the high price that pangolins can fetch in illicit trade, but may realistically be the only way pangolins can be conserved,” he says.
Such safe spots, with community participation, could ensure that pangolins hang-on while the other strategies—decreasing demand and enforcing the law—move forward. Setting up community initiatives, including incentives, to protect imperiled species is playing an increasingly important role in conservation efforts worldwide. If locals value the wildlife around them, it becomes much harder for poachers and traders to make inroads.
World Pangolin Day in Chinese.
Pangolins fall into a massive group of species that long been under threat, but have historically benefited from little-to-no targeted conservation efforts. For decades, conservationists told themselves that if they could save the big, so-called charismatic species then the smaller species would also be protected. Save the forest, they said, and we save it all. But nature is not only intertwined, but endlessly complicated: each endangered species has its own story to tell, and each faces a unique set of threats. For example, the pangolin’s peril is worsened by slow-breeding, difficulty in captivity, and the sheer scale of the trade.
In the Anthropocene—an age of overpopulation, ecosystem destruction, and climate change—conservation efforts must not only be stepped up but broadened to include the small and the strange, the cryptic and the unknown.
“We have a chance to save pangolins from disappearing […] it is our responsibility to take every step necessary to ensure the survival of these amazing species,” says Shepherd.
Package for oral liquid made out of pangolin scales. Photo courtesy of TRAFFIC.
Cape pangolin mother and juvenile. Photo by: Maria Diekmann/Rare and Endangered Species Trust.
Confiscated pangolin. Photo by: TRAFFIC.
Pangolins are being decimated by an illegal trade in the scales and meat. Photo by: Sabine Schoppe.
Pangolin habitat in Nepal. Photo by: Ambika Khatiwada.
Pangolin for sale. Photo courtesy of TRAFFIC.
The World’s Pangolin Species
Indian pangolin (Manis crassicaudata), Near Threatened
Philippine pangolin (Manis culionensis), Near Threatened
Chinese pangolin (Manis pentadactyla), Endangered
Sunda pangolin (Manis javanica), Endangered
Giant pangolin (Manis gigantea), Least Concern
Ground pangolin (Manis temminckii), Least Concern
Tree pangolin (Manis tricuspis), Near Threatened
Long-tailed pangolin (Manis tetradactyla), Least Concern
Jeremy Hance is a contributor to Mongabay.com, which provides news, information and analysis on environmental issues, with a special focus on tropical rainforests. The website features more than 70,000 photos and has a section about forests for children available in nearly 40 languages.
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Assistant Ed: Josie Huang/ Ed: Lynn Hasselberger