One of nature’s most remarkable creatures, the pangolin, is being driven to extinction as hunting and trafficking have soared in recent years. Studies have discovered that hundreds of thousands of these distinctive, scaly animals are now being killed every year to satisfy markets in Asia, making it the most trafficked and poached mammal on Earth. The pangolin is hunted for its meat – and also for its scales, which are believed to have important medicinal properties as cures for poor circulation, skin complaints and asthma.
Last January, authorities in Hong Kong seized 8.3 tonnes of pangolin scales in a shipment from Nigeria bound for Vietnam. It was one of the largest confiscation of the animal’s scales ever made and its weight suggests that around 13,800 animals died to make up the consignment. In addition, in February, Malaysian customs officers seized 1,800 boxes that contained 30 tonnes of frozen pangolins and pangolin parts. Ironically, the confiscation was made only a few days before World Pangolin Day was held on 16 February this year. “We simply do not know if pangolins can withstand this level of hunting,” said Daniel Ingram of University College London. “The problem is compounded by the fact we do not have reliable pangolin population estimates.” Ingram is lead author of a paper on pangolin trafficking that has just been published in the journal Global Ecology and Conservation.
There are eight species of pangolin, four in Africa, four in Asia. All live on diets of ants and termites. Crucially, pangolins are unique among mammals because they possess scales. These are made of keratin, from which hair and fingernails are also made but which has no medical properties. However, it is the behaviour of the pangolin that is the cause of the problems it now faces. When threatened, the animals curl up in a motionless hard ball, which makes them an easy target for hunters and poachers. “In Asia, numbers of pangolins have declined sharply and traders have turned to more abundant and less expensive African pangolins to meet demand,” said Ingram. In addition, spreading deforestation in Africa is also threatening numbers. “The problem is worsened by the fact that few attempts to breed pangolins in captivity have succeeded. That means that at the moment there is no prospect that we could set up breeding programmes which would allow us to reintroduce pangolins once we have managed to stop the trade in parts.”
Credit: Robin McKie for The Guardian, 24 March 2019.