According to Traditional Chinese Medicine, there is an animal that is capable of providing good luck, keeping evil spirits at bay, increasing blood circulation, curing asthma, promoting lactation and preventing cancer.
It is also the most illegally trafficked animal in the world.
The pangolin is a prehistoric mammal whose native range spans across Africa, India, Southeast Asia and Indonesia. These spiny creatures are covered with scales made of keratin and when threatened, they curl up into a tight almost impenetrable ball.
Known as scaly anteaters, they utilize their curved claws to excavate ant and termite nests. Their exceptionally long tongues aid in each endeavor while their ability to voluntarily constrict their ears and nostrils keep insects from getting in.
Although they are not indestructible, they sure do come close.
The Plight of the Pangolin
Once consumed as a supplemental protein source in rural villages, the pangolin is now considered a luxury amongst the wealthy and growing middle class in urbanized areas. Unlike the elephant or rhino, the skin, scales and meat of the pangolin can all be sold on the black market, making it extremely profitable. In the past 10 years, nearly one million pangolins have been taken from the wild and poached for their scales and meat.
While many pangolins are killed once they’re caught, others captured for use in restaurants are brought to the table alive only to be killed in front of the paying customer. A tribute to the consumer that what they’re about to pay for and indulge in is, in fact, the real thing.
“We keep them alive in cages until the customer makes an order,” explains a chef from the Chinese province of Guangdong to The Guardian, “Then we hammer them unconscious, cut their throats and drain the blood. It is a slow death.”
Sadly, the plight of the pangolin has been neglected until somewhat recently. Solitary, shy, nocturnal and somewhat strange looking animals don’t garner the kind of support other endangered animals do, making it difficult for organizations to fund as many conservation projects.
Saving This Species
There are eight species of pangolin distributed throughout Africa and Asia, two of which are critically endangered. Although all species are protected by international treaty, pangolins, especially when it comes to the shipment of their scales, are often overlooked in comparison to other wildlife trade targets.
The wildlife trade is extensive, making it challenging for authorities to monitor all borders. In turn, the smuggling routes of many pangolin shipments are difficult to track. To make things worse, customs and postal workers are not always trained to detect pangolin, making it that much easier to move shipments.
To make matters worse, much of the information we gather regarding the species, specifically population statistics, come from the substantial amount of pangolin products seized by authorities. With little known about the population of wild pangolins and little known of their natural history, it’s difficult to say to what extent or exactly how drastically their populations have declined.
The International Union for Conservation of Nature suspects the Sunda pangolin population has declined more than 50 percent in the past 15 years alone. Other information is simply inferred. For instance, the pangolin is known to bear one offspring each year, allowing experts to easily deduce that the level at which pangolin is being traded is simply not sustainable for the population long term.
We know plenty about pangolins and still, it may not be enough. Consumers in China and Asia continue to believe the pangolin has healing powers and the demand for it in restaurants is unabating. It’s imperative that while we respect the traditions of others, we support organizations dedicated to raising awareness hoping to put an end to these misleading claims. It’s equally crucial that we support the organizations working tirelessly to preserve these extraordinary animals, whether by observing them in their natural habitat or by enforcing wildlife trade laws.