~Ruby Devi Nath and Baishali Deb
A largely unknown creature, the Pangolin holds the undesirable title of being the most poached and illegally trafficked mammal in the world. Scientist estimates that more than 1 million have been killed in the last decade.
So what exactly is a Pangolin?
They are burrowing mammals covered in protective overlapping scales made of keratin, the same protein that forms human hairs and finger nails. They are found in Asia and Sub-Saharan Africa. There are 8 species of pangolin, and they vary in weight and colour ranging from yellowish-brown to dark brown. They feed on ants and termites excavated from the earth using their extraordinarily long and sticky tongues and elongated nails. They are referred to as being scaly anteaters, but they are not part of anteater family.
The pangolin possesses none of the cachet of better known animals that are hot on the international black market. It lacks the tiger’s grace, the rhino’s brute strength.
What makes the Pangolin the most apprised animal in the black market?
The pangolin trade is the illegal poaching, trafficking and sale of pangolins, parts of pangolins or pangolin derived products. Pangolins are believed to be world’s most trafficked mammal, accounting for as much as 20% of all illegal wildlife trade.
The animals are trafficked mainly for their scales, which are believed to treat a variety of health conditions in traditional Chinese medicines, and as a luxury food in Vietnam and china.
The black market pangolin trade is primarily active in Asia. Demand is particularly high for its scales, but whole animals are also sold either living or dead for the production of other products with purported medicinal properties or for consumption as exotic food.
Pangolins have a thick layer of protective scales made from keratin. When threatened, pangolins curl into a ball using the scales as an armour to defend against predators.
In traditional Chinese medicine, the scales are used for variety of purposes. The pangolins are boiled to remove the scales, which are then dried and roasted, then sold based on claims that they can stimulate lactation, help to drain pus and relieve skin diseases or palsy. Scales can cost more than 1.9 lakhs/kg on the black market.
Pangolin meat is prized as a delicacy in parts of China and Vietnam. In China, the meat is believed to have a nutritional value that makes it particularly good for kidney function. In Vietnam, restaurants can charge as much as Rs. 10000 per round of pangolin meat. Restaurants employees kill the animals at the table, in front of the diners, to show authenticity and freshness.
Though meat and scales are the primary drivers of the pangolin trade, there are also other less common parts and uses. Pangolin wine is produced by boiling rice wine with a baby pangolin. It is purported to have various healing properties, such as for treatment of skin diseases and improved breathing. Pangolin blood is similarly viewed by some as having medicinal value. Pangolin skins have also been trafficked. In 2015, Uganda reported it had seized 2 tons of pangolin skins.
Pangolins most likely have vanished in China and are fast disappearing from Vietnam, Thailand and other parts of Southeast Asia. In Africa, illegal trafficking is rapidly depleting their population. The demand for pangolin in Asia has grown with the rise of the middle class and increasing affluence in countries such as China, experts said.
Who are the culprits?
The poachers range from independent trappers to crime syndicates and their level of destruction is staggering, wildlife expert said. Over the past decade, over 1 million pangolins are believed to have been illegally trafficked, making it the most trafficked animal in the world.
So what’s being done to protect the pangolins?
Governments and nongovernmental organizations have undertaken a variety of conservation efforts with varying activities and degrees of success in different parts of the world. The IUCN’s Species Survival Commission formed a pangolin specialist group in 2012, comprising 100 experts from 25 countries hosted by Zoological Society of London. It is also coordinated an annual awareness day, World Pangolin Day, February 15, starting in 2014.
According to Annette Olsson, technical advisor at Conservation International, one of the problems the pangolin faces is that, unlike more well known endangered animals like elephants, rhinoceroses, pandas, or tigers, “It’s not huge and not very charismatic. It’s small and weird and just disappearing”. Legal measures focus on curbing poaching and the supply side of the market, while media attention and public awareness can be crucial to the success to animal conservation efforts by affecting demands. In some parts due to lack of attention, pangolin conservation has not been significant recipient of funding from governments and NGOs.
A significant challenge to conservationists is the difficulty pangolins have in captivity. The animals do not adapt well to alternate or artificial foods and suffer stress and malnutrition leading to significantly shortened life-span. For these reasons they are rarely found in zoos or visible to the public while alive. One of the major causes of the problem is that without the ability to observe healthy pangolins in captivity, there is still a lot about pangolins human have not yet being able to learn.
“The pangolins could go extinct before most people realize it exists.
Or, more to the point, it could go extinct because of that.”
(References are available on request)
~Ruby Devi Nath and Baishali Deb,
3rd Year, B.V.Sc. & A. H., Lakhimpur College of Veterinary Science,
Assam Agricultural University, Joyhing, North Lakhimpur, Assam- 787051, India.
Email ID: firstname.lastname@example.org,
Cells: +91- 9854339788, +91-9957373347.