By Scott Pursner
The pangolin, an ant-eating mammal that looks a bit like a pinecone with legs, is currently facing the fight of its life not to be eaten out of existence by the burgeoning Chinese middle class.
The only scaly mammal alive today, there are eight species of pangolin inhabiting large swaths of Africa and Asia. These shy nocturnal creatures have no teeth, subsist on a diet comprised mainly of ants and termites–of which they can eat up to 200,000 in a night–and defend themselves by rolling into a ball for upwards of two to three hours until a pesky predator goes away. There is one predator it cannot escape, however: humans.
Pangolin scales are used in traditional Chinese medicine, as they are held to alleviate symptoms of arthritis, reduce swelling and promote lactation. Pangolin meat is also considered a delicacy and a symbol of wealth. It is often eaten when a business contract is signed.
Demand for pangolin meat is so large and the pockets of those who want it are so deep that there are well-funded illegal trade routes throughout Southeast Asia and some extending all the way to Africa, where pangolins previously untouched by the Asian market are now being captured for sale due to the closer ties between the continent and China, as well as the severe depletion of Asian populations.
By the most conservative estimates, 10,000 pangolins are intercepted while being illegally trafficked each year. If we assume that only 10% to 20% of the trade actually gets reported, the true number of animals subject to this trade reaches 116,990 to 233,980 over a two-year period, according to advocacy group Annamiticus.
This would mean that over 1 million pangolins have been caught and sold within the last 10 years alone, making it the most trafficked mammal in the world. Very little is known about remaining numbers in the wild but conservationists estimate the wild population has already been halved. It is feared that these timid creatures will have been eaten out of existence within 15 years if major efforts are not made to stop the trade.
International wildlife organizations are doing their best to stem the tide, but the pangolin does not have the rock star status of elephants and tigers. Though Vietnam and China, the two countries known to be major pangolin consumers, are both signatories to the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES), this has not stopped the black market from flourishing.
The International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN), one of the foremost international organizations for the conservation of wild species, has over the last two years created a special working group on pangolin conservation and recently launched a major offensive to save these species. Time is critical, as all six species are listed as threatened with extinction and two are considered critically endangered in the wild, only one step away from extinct in the wild, the IUCN said.
The group's newest plan focuses on cutting demand, which it says is the single most important action to curb the trade. To do this, the group is proposing using US$3.2 million to build a strategy to cut demand in China and Vietnam. They propose spending a further US$1.6 million on raising awareness of the pangolin's plight. Another US$1.6 million is to be used to research their habitats and carry out patrols in areas with stable populations.
There is a glimmer of hope for the pangolin following the case of the trade in shark fin. The Chinese government in December 2013 enacted a strict ban on the sale and use of shark fin, usually eaten as a delicacy at banquets or other special occasions, as part of its campaign to discourage lavish spending by officials, for ecological reasons, and amid food safety concerns. The ban led to a decrease of shark fin consumption by at least 80% in Guangzhou, the country's shark fin capital, by January 2014, according to reports by Al Jazeera.
At present, however, the outlook does not look promising for the plucky pangolin, which will need all the help it can get to survive into the second half of this century.