LONDON––The International Union for the Conservation has elevated all four Asian pangolin species to “endangered” status and all four African pangolin species to “vulnerable” status.
“All eight pangolin species are now listed as threatened with extinction,” Zoological Society of London conservation programs director Jonathan Baillie told Adam Vaughan of The Guardian on July 28, 2014, “largely because they are being illegally traded to China and Vietnam. In the 21st century we really should not be eating species to extinction––there is simply no excuse for allowing this illegal trade to continue.”
Wrote Vaughan, “The Chinese pangolin (Manis pentadactyla) and Sunda pangolin (Manis javanica) are now listed as critically endangered, the worst listing on the Red List before a species is declared extinct, with the Indian pangolin (Manis crassicaudata) and Philippine pangolin (Manis culionensis) upgraded to endangered.”
The IUCN Pangolin Specialist Group is now seeking $6.7 million with which to implement a pangolin recovery plan. Nearly half the budget would be allocated toward a global campaign to raise awareness of the plight of pangolins, with about two-thirds of the effort directed at reducing demand from Chinese and Vietnamese consumers.
The rest of the funding would go toward protecting pangolin habitat and interdicting the clandestine trade in pangolins and their remains.
The IUCN escalated attention to pangolins about two months after random inspections at the Kwai Chung cargo port in Hong Kong led to the May 28, 2014 seizure of scales from as many as 8,000 pangolins. The shipment had been labeled plastic scrap from Kenya, but actually originated from South Africa.
Hong Kong inspectors two weeks later intercepted a second clandestine shipment of pangolin scales, identified as “Zingana Sawn Timber,” from Cameroon. The second shipment included the scales from more than 5,000 pangolins.
On June 17, 2014 the Hong Kong Customs & Excise Department announced the arrest of a 46-year-old Malaysian man believed to have been involved in both shipments.
Traffic bigger than was believed
If the estimates of the numbers of pangolins killed for their scales in connection with the Hong Kong seizures were accurate, the pangolin traffic is markedly larger than had been believed.
The journal Frontiers in Ecology & the Environment in February 2014 published an estimate by Zhao-Min Zhou, of the Public Security Bureau for Forests in Yunnan province, China, and David Macdonald of Oxford University that the remains of about 10,000 pangolins per year are intercepted from traffickers.
Zhao-Min Zhou and Macdonald projected their estimate from records of the seizures of 220 living pangolins and the remains of 4,909 pangolins in 43 law enforcement actions since 2010.
“The numbers of pangolins traded are shocking, and all the more so considering the pharmaceutical pointlessness of the trade. This trade is intolerably wasteful,” Macdonald told media.
A plea bargain in Malaysia in January 2012 sent Philippine pangolin trafficker Aivon Vencer, 20, to jail for three years, a month after Vencer was caught in the act of trying to smuggle 1,068 frozen pangolin carcasses out of the country by boat.
That was reportedly the biggest seizure of pangolin remains before the Hong Kong seizures in 2014, but it was scarcely an isolated case. Indonesian Forestry Ministry director of investigations and forest observation Raffles Panjaitan in October 2011 told the Jakarta Post that his agency had recorded 587 cases of pangolin trafficking since 2006, involving an estimated $4.3 million USD worth of pangolins on the illegal market.
Major pangolin trafficking arrests have also come recently in far eastern India, Thailand, and Tibet, where People’s Daily Online has reported frequent seizures of pangolins and illegal drugs by the Lhasa Customs Office at Zhangmu, on the China/Nepal border in the Tibet Autonomous Region.
There have been many previous warnings about the international decline of pangolins due to poaching and trafficking to serve the Chinese and Vietnamese markets. The Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species in 2002 prohibited selling pangolins across national borders.
“We have uncovered disturbing information which strongly suggests that ‘medicinal use’ pangolin farms are already operating in China,” said Project Pangolin founders Rhishja Cota-Larson and Sarah Pappin in January 2012.
“The emergence of pangolin farming,” Cota-Larson and Pappin suggested, “may help provide insight into why the world is losing pangolins at such an alarming rate––an estimated 40,000 killed in 2011––and why China’s appetite for pangolins continues to increase. We found that pangolin farming is promoted as an investment opportunity due to continued high demand from the traditional Chinese medicine industry. In an article discussing how the scarcity of endangered species has created a bottleneck for traditional Chinese medicine production, the China Association of Traditional Chinese Medicine web site notes that progress is being made, now that bear farming has been industrialized and pangolin breeding has shown signs of a dawn. On the Chinese financial news website Eastmoney.com, there is a page discussing the potential for pangolin breeding, in response to estimated annual demand for 300,000 pangolins per year.”
As with bear bile and tiger farming, the growth of a captive population enables sellers to encourage customers to buy more pangolin products, even as the exploited species disappears from the wild.
The conservation aspect of the disappearance of pangolins has drawn the most attention so far, but the suffering of individual pangolins is considerable. Most pangolins taken from the wild are transported to markets and sold live, if the poachers can keep them alive. This is also believed to be the fate of farmed pangolins. If pangolins die in transport or markets, their remains are frozen and sold.
What is a pangolin?
A survey of U.S. zoogoers done 20 or 30 years ago reputedly found that most misidentified the word “pangolin” as a musical instrument, but many imagined that poaching to get an animal part used to make the instrument might be pushing a rare species toward extinction.
Also called scaly anteaters, pangolins under 20 years ago remained common across much of Asia and Africa.
But the possibly apocryphal pangolin-is-an-instrument story, told to U.S. zoo docent classes to emphasize the need to improve zoological education, appears to have included two nuggets of truth.
Most Americans and Europeans do not know what a pangolin is, having never seen one. And pangolins are now seldom seen anywhere except in Chinese live markets. Only the most furtive, nocturnal, and highest-climbing pangolins survive in much of their former habitat–if any survive at all.
Resembling a long-tailed armadillo with the semi-arboreal habits of an opossum, pangolins are believed to have emerged in the Paleocene epoch, circa 60 million years ago. Evolutionary geneticist Gene McCarthy of Macroevolution.net argues that pangolins and armadillos might even both be descendants of stegosaurs and ankylosaurs, two dinosaur families whom McCarthy contends were synapsid proto-mammals, not reptiles.
Pangolins are toothless. Of peaceable disposition, except toward the ants and termites who make up most of their diet in the wild, pangolins’ chief defense against predation is to roll into a tightly armored ball. This was more effective against sabretoothed cats and cave bears than against human collectors.
Pangolins have long been hunted for meat and for the purported medicinal qualities of their scales. Formed of keratin, the same material as fingernails, pangolin scales were sometimes used to make armor in medieval China. But until increasing affluence in southern China drove market demand for pangolins up in recent decades, pangolins remained relatively abundant.