Pangolins: Quietly Being Driven Towards Their Extinction

The pangolin is a scaly anteater found in Southeast Asia and several African countries. These nocturnal mammals are often found burrowing or feeding on ants and termites with their incredibly long sticky tongues (up to sixteen inches in length). Pangolins are known for their vibrant and nearly impenetrable armor-plated scales. When they are threatened, they roll into a ball and use these sharp scales to protect them. This defensive mechanism works very well against most predators, but illegal poaching and trading have been killing off these fascinating creatures at an alarming rate.

There are currently eight species of pangolin in the world; three are found in Southeast Asia and the other five are spread throughout Africa. Two of the Asian pangolin (the Sunda pangolin and the Chinese pangolin) are listed as “endangered species” according to the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List. Pangolins are being illegally hunted at such a fast rate that some species will likely be facing extinction in the near future. Pangolins are poached for several reasons, as their coat of armor is a very unique and sought after commodity in Southeastern Asia. Some people use pangolin armor to make jewelry and clothing, while others use their scales and blood to make medicine to help treat many illnesses. However, perhaps the most common cause for pangolin poaching is that their meat is considered a delicacy at restaurants in China. 

Due to their extremely high demand and tall price tag, the pangolin has been inadvertently involved in very large-scale black market trading. While not a whole lot is currently known about the illegal trades, ships have been found containing thousands of dead and frozen pangolins near Vietnam. In 2010, a logbook was discovered that recorded a single criminal syndicate’s illegal trafficking of Sunda pangolins. In a twenty-one month span, this one illegal organization had killed and traded over 22,000 pangolins.

Possibly even worse than these mass-shipments of frozen pangolins is their usage in some restaurants. According to an article from “The Guardian”, a chef from the province of Guangdong in southern China revealed shockingly brutal accounts of pangolin treatment in a recent interview. He stated that “we keep them alive in cages until the customer makes an order. Then we hammer them unconscious, cut their throats and drain the blood. It is a slow death.” Then they slice them up, boil them, and add them to a number of different dishes to be served to the customer—often times also giving the remains of the blood to take home afterwards. Even if pangolins are treated like the fascinating animals that they are, they are notorious for being difficult to keep in captivity. Even when live pangolins are confiscated, conservationists have a difficult time nursing them back to health before they can reintroduce them back to their natural habitat.

Even though poaching and trading is strictly banned in the countries within the pangolin’s range, these governments lack the funding to crack down and effectively enforce these regulations. Wildlife managements in these countries are generally weak and are unable to bring down such large criminal organizations without more power and funding. 

In addition, Chinese culture has been using the scales and blood of pangolins for medicinal purposes for centuries. This “traditional medicine,” whether it works or not, has been the norm for such a long time that the culture is unwilling to give it up. The debate that many have is that pangolin scales should be able to be legally used for medicine, but not used as meat in restaurants.

In theory, a solution to the problem could be to strictly enforce the laws against smuggling pangolins for food, yet allow a very small quota to be used for medicinal purposes. However, doing this would blur the line of what is and what is not legal. This would also allow the trading of pangolins to continue much in the same way it has for years, and would maybe even make smuggling easier. Also, pangolins are not very fast at reproducing, as they can only give birth to  one offspring at a time. This means their population is naturally at a disadvantage, and ergo, is far more vulnerable to exploitations, no matter how big or small.

The only real way to keep these creatures alive is to nip the problem in the bud and stop illegal poaching and trading altogether. If nothing is done to stop this drastic decline in the pangolin population, then both the Sunda and Chinese species may forever be extinct. Luckily, it is not too late to save them and the first step in making any sort of large-scale change is to bring awareness to the problem. So spread the word to your friends and family and if you have a little time to spare, spend a few minutes researching this crisis. A great place to start is http://www.savepangolins.org/ and they can show you how you can help save the pangolin today. Another great way to learn about the problem is a short video found here.

Photo credits: (top) upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/f/fe/Tree_Pangolin.JPG and (bottom) upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/1/10/Scaly_ant_eater_by_by_Dushy_Ranetunge_2.jpg

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