19 Sep 2013: Report

Poaching Pangolins: An Obscure
Creature Faces Uncertain Future

The pangolin does not make headlines the way elephants or rhinos do. But the survival of this uncharismatic, armor-plated animal is being threatened by a gruesome trade in its meat and its scales.

by richard conniff

Early this year, a Chinese fishing vessel ran aground in Tubbataha Reefs Natural Park, a UNESCO World Heritage site in the Philippines. The 12 crewmen were already in trouble for damaging the protected coral reef. But then the Philippine Coast Guard crew working to re-float the vessel got a look at the cargo: 400 boxes of what may be the world’s most heavily trafficked wild mammal contraband — pangolins, carefully butchered and frozen to be served up as a status symbol on the dinner plates of the nouveaux riches in China and Vietnam.

View gallery
Ground pangolin

Tikki Hywood Trust
When feeling threatened, a pangolin balls itself up in the shelter of its armor plating.

If you have never even heard of pangolins, much less pangolin poaching, you are not alone. Even conservationists tend not to know much about these armor-plated animals that are commonly known as scaly anteaters, perhaps because they are small, uncharismatic, and nocturnal. The headlines tend to focus on bigger and seemingly more immediate problems, notably the slaughter last year of 35,000 elephants for their ivory and 810 rhinos for their horns. But almost unnoticed, the illegal trade in pangolins has raged out of control, to meet demand in East Asia for both their meat and their scales, which are roasted and used, like rhino horn, in traditional medicines.

Within the last year alone:
• French officials seized 110 pounds of pangolin scales, said to be worth $100,000, being transshipped via Charles De Gaulle Airport from Cameroon to Vietnam.
• Customs officials in Vietnam discovered a cargo of 6.2 tons of frozen pangolins being smuggled in from Indonesia.
• Police in India stopped a shipment of scales taken from 300 pangolins.
• Police in Thailand stopped a pickup truck carrying 102 pangolins.

Annual seizures run to about 10,000 pangolins, according to Dan Challender, co-chair of the pangolin specialist group for the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN). But that number is almost
Two of the four species in Asia are now categorized as endangered on the IUCN red list.
certainly a small fraction of what gets through to the marketplace. Notebooks seized in 2009 from one trafficking syndicate, for instance, revealed that 22,000 pangolins had been killed over 21 months just in the northern Borneo state of Sabah.

All eight pangolin species are in dramatic decline and Challender says the specialist group is currently reviewing their conservation status on the IUCN red list. Two of the four species in Asia are now listed as endangered, and in Africa, two are near threatened. Until now, the African species have mainly been hunted for bush meat. But demand from China and Vietnam has recently pushed prices there as high as $7,000 for a single animal, according to Darren Pietersen, who tracks radio-tagged pangolins for his doctoral research at the University of Pretoria.

The name “pangolin” comes from the Malayan dialect word “pengguling," meaning “something that rolls up.” It’s an apt description of the pangolin’s primary means of self-defense. When threatened, a pangolin will tuck its head under its tail and ball itself up in the shelter of its armor plating – it looks a bit like a basketball crossed with an artichoke. In this posture, it’s “too big for a lion or hyena to get its mouth around and get a grip,” says Pietersen, and the scales are too tough to penetrate. “Most often a lion just chews on them for a few hours and gives up.”

The pangolin’s way of life has also generally provided it with protection against predators and hunters. A pangolin is usually active for only about four to eight hours a night, when it heads out to raid ant nests and termite mounds. Its long, pencil-thin tongue can extend up to 16 inches for probing into a nest, and it is coated with a sticky substance like flypaper to catch and retrieve insects. The ants defend themselves by spraying formic acid, says Pietersen, but a pangolin generally feeds and moves away from a nest in a minute or two, before the noxious spray can have much effect. Otherwise,
Pangolins produce only one offspring a year, not enough to replace the population being lost to poachers.
arboreal pangolins spend most of their time in nest holes high up in tree trunks, and ground-dwelling species hide out in burrows as much as 11 feet beneath the surface.

But hunters now use dogs to locate arboreal pangolins or they spotlight the animals as they forage. Then they take down the nest tree or set snares outside burrows. The basketball-like defensive posture that lions can’t handle turns out to be perfectly suited to human poachers, who can pick up a pangolin and bag it without even a struggle.

That makes pangolins “the new rhinos,” says Lisa Hywood, who manages the Tikki Hywood Trust, an animal rescue and conservation facility in Zimbabwe. But she says the hazard for pangolin species is more urgent than for bigger, better known species: Zoos at least know how to breed elephants and rhinos in captivity. So even if every last one were to be hunted out, it would still be possible to save those species and reintroduce them to the wild.

But so far, she says, captive breeding of any of the eight pangolin species has proven extraordinarily difficult. Moreover, captive breeding wouldn’t solve the problem: Pangolins in the wild produce only one offspring per year, not nearly enough to replace the population being lost to poachers. (In a horrific twist, presenting a pangolin fetus for dinner is regarded as a particularly impressive status symbol in China.) The bottom line is that if a pangolin species goes extinct in the wild, it will be gone forever.

In July, the IUCN sponsored a meeting in Singapore of 40 conservationists from 14 countries to develop a global plan for pangolin conservation. Laws banning the trade are already in place in many countries, and it is also forbidden under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species. But enforcement is minimal, often with only token punishment for
What’s needed are programs to reduce demand for pangolin parts in East Asia, a conservationist says.
poachers. When they seize a pangolin shipment, some countries simply auction it off again, moving it back into the illegal market at a profit.

What’s needed, says Jonathan Baillie of the Zoological Society of London, are programs to “reduce demand for pangolin parts in East Asia” and also to create “pangolin strongholds where we can ensure the viability of populations in the wild.” One likely initiative is a social marketing campaign, with celebrity support, to make dead pangolins a symbol of shame rather than status in East Asia. The campaign would also inform people that pangolin scales, which are made of keratin, like fingernails, have no medicinal value whatsoever.

Raising public awareness also means introducing pangolins to the public as living creatures rather than simply as meat on a plate. Despite their obscurity, says Lisa Hywood, pangolins do in fact have their charismatic qualities. Her facility in Harare rehabilitates rescued pangolins for return

View gallery
White-bellied pangolin

Tikki Hywood Trust
This white-bellied pangolin was rescued in Sierra Leone in West Africa.
to the wild. Part of the routine is a daily walk, she says, with the pangolins doing “what an animal does, digging, rolling in the dirt, investigating." They aren't on a leash. The handler walks a few steps behind, she says, and the pangolins don't ball themselves up or run away because "they are very intelligent animals, and they can tell the difference between a person who is trying to kill and eat them, and one who is caring for them."

Hywood has one pangolin she has been rearing for the past 18 months named Chaminuka. She says he recognizes her when she comes home, makes a soft chuffing noise, and stands up to hold her hand and greet her.

It can of course be deeply moving to work with elephants, she adds, speaking from experience. But she has discovered that working with pangolins can be even more powerfully emotional, especially as these curious creatures rapidly vanish from the face of the Earth.



POSTED ON 19 Sep 2013 IN Biodiversity Biodiversity Business & Innovation Oceans Policy & Politics Africa Europe 

COMMENTS


I have been following progress towards saving the pangolins for over a year. In addition to the efforts in place and proposed in the article, why not sponsor an international adopt-a-pangolin campaign? There would be greater sanctions if adopted individuals or groups were slaugteresd.
Posted by Linda Gunther on 19 Sep 2013


Linda, that is a great idea. I sent a copy of the article to a friend with the notation that pangolins are lovely creatures who never hurt another creature or the humans who harm them. All he wants is his daily ration of insects. Why can't the ignorant people just leave him alone?
Posted by Kathie on 22 Sep 2013


While doing chimp research in western Tanzania, I was talking to some locals about pangolins (Swahili is "kakakuona," or "brother who sees") and they didn't mention anything about an Asian trade, but they did say that some people personally will keep pangolin scales as a protective charm against lions.

We caught some pangolins on our trail cameras and they were my favorite ones to watch!
Posted by Betsy on 17 Oct 2013


God, I am sick of the human race!

Posted by Ingrid Raikes on 08 Dec 2013


POST A COMMENT

Comments are moderated and will be reviewed before they are posted to ensure they are on topic, relevant, and not abusive. They may be edited for length and clarity. By filling out this form, you give Yale Environment 360 permission to publish this comment.

Name 
Email address 
Comment 
 
Please type the text shown in the graphic.


richard conniffABOUT THE AUTHOR
Richard Conniff is a National Magazine Award-winning writer whose articles have appeared in Time, Smithsonian, The Atlantic, National Geographic, and other publications. He is the author of several books, including The Species Seekers: Heroes, Fools, and the Mad Pursuit of Life on Earth. In previous articles for Yale Environment 360, he has examined how new research on microbes can assist in conservation efforts and how roadsides can become habitat for native plants and wildlife.
MORE BY THIS AUTHOR

 
 

RELATED ARTICLES


The Wild Alaskan Lands at Stake
If the Pebble Mine Moves Ahead


READ MORE

With Camera Drones, New Tool
For Viewing and Saving Nature

Filmmaker Thomas Lennon says camera drones have opened up dramatic new possibilities for seeing the natural world and inspiring the public to protect it. In an e360 interview, he talks about how his drone video from the Delaware River illustrates the potential of this new technology.
READ MORE

Alien Islands: Why Killing Rats
Is Essential to Save Key Wildlife

Alien rats introduced by ships are decimating populations of birds and other wildlife on islands from the sub-Antarctic to California. Effective programs to eradicate the rats are underway but are encountering opposition from animal activists and some green groups.
READ MORE

Resilience: A New Conservation
Strategy for a Warming World

As climate change puts ecosystems and species at risk, conservationists are turning to a new approach: preserving those landscapes that are most likely to endure as the world warms.
READ MORE

On an Unspoiled Caribbean Isle,
Grand Plans for Big Tourist Port

East Caicos is a tropical jewel – the largest uninhabitated island in the Caribbean and home to rare birds and pristine turtle-nesting beaches. But plans for a giant port for cruise and cargo ships could change it forever.
READ MORE

 

MORE IN Reports


A Clash of Green and Brown:
Germany Struggles to End Coal

by christian schwagerl
A recent battle over imposing a “climate fee” on coal-fired power plants highlights Germany’s continuing paradox: Even as the nation aspires to be a renewable energy leader, it is exploiting its vast reserves of dirty brown coal.
READ MORE

On an Unspoiled Caribbean Isle,
Grand Plans for Big Tourist Port

by fred pearce
East Caicos is a tropical jewel – the largest uninhabitated island in the Caribbean and home to rare birds and pristine turtle-nesting beaches. But plans for a giant port for cruise and cargo ships could change it forever.
READ MORE

A Little Fish with Big Impact
In Trouble on U.S. West Coast

by elizabeth grossman
Scientists are concerned that officials waited too long to order a ban on U.S. Pacific sardine fishing that goes into effect July 1. The dire state of the sardine population is a cautionary tale about overharvesting these and other forage fish that are a critical part of the marine food web.
READ MORE

Despite Hurdles, Solar Power in
Australia Is Too Robust to Kill

by jo chandler
No nation has as high a penetration of residential solar as Australia, with one in five homes now powered by the sun. And while the government has slashed incentives, solar energy continues to grow, thanks to a steep drop in the cost of PV panels and the country’s abundant sunshine.
READ MORE

Genetically Modified Mosquito
Sparks a Controversy in Florida

by lisa palmer
Officials in the Florida Keys are seeking to use a GM mosquito that could help prevent a recurrence of dengue fever there. But fears among some residents — which scientists say are unfounded — are slowing the release of mosquitoes whose offspring are genetically programmed to die.
READ MORE

Oasis at Risk: Oman’s Ancient
Water Channels Are Drying Up

by fred pearce
Since pre-Islamic times, Oman’s water systems known as aflaj have brought water from the mountains and made the desert bloom. But now, unregulated pumping of groundwater is depleting aquifers and causing the long-reliable channels to run dry.
READ MORE

Surge in Renewables Remakes
California’s Energy Landscape

by cheryl katz
Thanks to favorable geography, innovative government policies, and businesses that see the benefits of clean energy investments, California is closing in on its goal of generating a third of its electricity from renewables by 2020.
READ MORE

As Andes Warm, Deciphering
The Future for Tropical Birds

by daniel grossman
Scientists have theorized that tropical birds in mountainous regions will move uphill as the climate warms. But new research in the Peruvian Andes suggests that the birds will stay put and face a new threat — predator snakes that will climb into their territory to escape the heat.
READ MORE

Can the North Sea Wind Boom
And Seabird Colonies Coexist?

by fred pearce
Offshore wind farms have been proliferating in the North Sea, with more huge projects planned. But conservationists are concerned this clean energy source could threaten seabird colonies that now thrive in the sea’s shallow waters.
READ MORE

On the Internet, Illegal Trade
In Endangered Wildlife Thrives

by ted williams
On eBay and elsewhere on the Internet, illegal wildlife and wildlife parts — from elephant ivory to tiger skins to monkey and crocodile skulls — are being sold. Bringing an end to this illicit activity is proving to be a daunting challenge.
READ MORE


e360 digest
Yale
Yale Environment 360 is
a publication of the
Yale School of Forestry
& Environmental Studies
.

SEARCH e360



Donate to Yale Environment 360
Yale Environment 360 Newsletter

CONNECT


ABOUT

About e360
Contact
Submission Guidelines
Reprints

E360 en Español

Universia partnership
Yale Environment 360 articles are now available in Spanish and Portuguese on Universia, the online educational network.
Visit the site.


DEPARTMENTS

Opinion
Reports
Analysis
Interviews
Forums
e360 Digest
Podcasts
Video Reports

TOPICS

Biodiversity
Business & Innovation
Climate
Energy
Forests
Oceans
Policy & Politics
Pollution & Health
Science & Technology
Sustainability
Urbanization
Water

REGIONS

Antarctica and the Arctic
Africa
Asia
Australia
Central & South America
Europe
Middle East
North America

e360 PHOTO GALLERY

“Peter
Photographer Robert Wintner documents the exquisite beauty and biodiversity of Cuba’s coral reefs, which are largely intact thanks to stifled coastal development in the communist nation.
View the gallery.

e360 MOBILE

Mobile
The latest
from Yale
Environment 360
is now available for mobile devices at e360.yale.edu/mobile.

e360 VIDEO

Warriors of Qiugang
The Warriors of Qiugang, a Yale Environment 360 video, chronicles a Chinese village’s fight against a polluting chemical plant. It was nominated for a 2011 Academy Award for Best Documentary Short.
Watch the video.


header image
Top Image: aerial view of Iceland. © Google & TerraMetrics.

e360 SPECIAL REPORT

“Tainted
A three-part series Tainted Harvest looks at the soil pollution crisis in China, the threat it poses to the food supply, and the complexity of any cleanup.
Read the series.

OF INTEREST



Yale