Many didn’t even know these existed let alone that they were so profitable….
They are the most heavily poached and trafficked species in the world—and until a few years ago, most people on the planet didn’t even know they existed.
They’re called pangolins—eight species of Asian and African scaly anteaters that look like cute little dinosaurs. These harmless creatures live in some pretty remote regions, but that doesn’t stop hunters from tracking them down. Conservationists estimate that more than a million pangolins have been taken from the wild in the past decade. Last year the International Union for Conservation of Nature announced that all eight species were threatened with extinction. Two species have been declared critically endangered.
Two major factors drive all this trade. Pangolin scales—which, like rhino horns and our own fingernails, are made of keratin—are used to supposedly cure or prevent a variety of illness in traditional Asian medicine. Pangolin meat, meanwhile, is considered both a delicacy and a sign of wealth and prosperity. A single bowl of pangolin soup can sell for several hundred dollars.
Rampant trade has had a devastating effect on pangolin populations through much of their range. “Pangolins’ behavior isn’t suited for large-scale collection,” said Vincent Nijman, a professor at Oxford Brookes University who has studied wildlife trafficking for pangolins and many other species. “They’re not just slow-moving, they are also slow in reproduction. They clearly can’t cope with it.”
Nijman recently completed research of pangolin trading in Indonesia. The study, published in TRAFFIC Bulletin, found that the rate of pangolin trading might be even higher than was thought because previous analysis relied on English-language reports. Nijman examined news stories in the Indonesian press and found many seizures that had not previously been counted.
“I managed to find 45 seizures over two-and-a-half years,” he said. “That’s basically one every month.”
That may seem like a lot, but experts say that seizures by police and customs officials represent a tiny fraction of the illegal trade, most of which goes undetected.