Shy, scaly and highly elusive, pangolins exist primarily in Asia and Africa. Today, they are also currently the most heavily trafficked mammal in the world.
Nearly 900,000 pangolins are known to have been trafficked across Southeast Asia in the past two decades.
TRAFFIC is Southeast Asia’s leading wildlife NGO working to track illicit trade and biodiversity conservation efforts affecting critically endangered plants and animals in the region.
According to the wildlife watchdog, challenges to pangolin conservation efforts in Southeast Asia are two-pronged.
These mammals often coexist with some of Asia’s poorest communities, incentivising locals to exploit their local biodiversity as a way of making a living. Moreover, growing affluence among Asia’s rapidly developing cities is driving demand for exotic wildlife, especially pangolins.
China and Vietnam are currently the two largest consumer markets for the nocturnal mammal.
Its scales, flesh, and foetuses are popular ingredients in traditional Chinese medicine despite a lack of scientific evidence of its curative powers. Their hard keratin scales are believed to cure hangovers, treat liver ailments, and help new mothers breastfeed.
In addition, pangolin meat is often eaten as a delicacy among corporate elites or the upper-middle class in Asia as a symbol of wealth and status.
Experts further warn that illegal poaching and trafficking of pangolins will drive several of this species to the brink of extinction.
Southeast Asia currently remains both heavy producer and consumer of this exotic animal.
Moreover, females give birth to one baby pup only once a year, making it near impossible for adequate replenishment of local pangolin populations.
For decades, conservationists, zoos, and commercial breeders have attempted to sustain pangolins under captivity, but to no avail owing to the pangolin’s highly specialised diet and captivity-induced stress.
In fact, baby pangolins have fatality rates of up to 70% in their first year, according to earlier studies exploring the feasibility of commercial breeding of the mammal.
In 2016, at least eight species were listed as endangered as part of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES), prohibiting further trading of the pangolin. However, local enforcement and monitoring of illicit trading has been poor if not nonexistent in the region.
“The volume of pangolin scales being trafficked is truly astounding and no threatened species can sustain this level of extraction. Stronger action is needed to deter traffickers from this devastating trade and to change the tide that drives consumption” says TRAFFIC’s SEA Director Kanitha Krishnasamy.
Pangolins derive their name from the Malay word “pengguling”, which translates loosely as “something that rolls up”, in reference to its ability to roll into a ball to protect its soft and vulnerable underbelly when threatened. This defense mechanism also makes it incredibly easy for poachers to capture the animal.
But a sliver of hope for the world’s most trafficked mammal to survive may lie in its recent connections with the novel Covid-19 outbreak as potential intermediate host for the deadly virus.
Earlier this month, university researchers in China uncovered a 99% match between the coronavirus found among pangolins and Covid-19. The outbreak, which originated from wet markets in Wuhan, has killed more than 2,000 so far and infected over 70,000 worldwide.
It is too early to know if the epidemic will put a stop to the Asian appetite for the pangolin, given multilateral treaties and regulations have largely failed to protect the critically endangered species.
Having no teeth means the pangolin has zero defense against its biggest threat today – humans. But humans are also quickly discovering how pangolins may bite in a different, and far scarier way, and one can only hope that this dampens demand for the exotic mammal for now.
Pangolin flesh is eaten as a delicacy or for medical purposes in many parts of Asia, especially Vietnam and China. Photo taken from TRAFFIC’s website.