By Dwi Adhiasto
The pangolin is an extraordinary dog-sized animal that looks like it would have been well suited for the Mesozoic Era. Covered with a full coat of hard, overlapping scales, it is the only mammal to have evolved such a defense. When threatened, the pangolin curls up into a ball, much like the armadillo. It is mainly an insectivore, feeding in the manner of anteaters.
Yet taxonomically the pangolin is neither armadillo nor anteater. It belongs instead to Pholidota, a distinct order of mammals comprised of eight different species in Africa and Asia.
Sadly, these rare creatures are quietly sliding into extinction due to growing demand. Pangolins have likely been hunted for millennia—In Africa, the meat is highly sought and considered a delicacy—but the global illegal wildlife trade has escalated what was once a moderate harvest into an existential threat.
Pangolins don't usually command the same attention as larger, charismatic species like tigers and elephants, but they, too, are being obliterated. In addition to their meat, there is demand for pangolin scales, considered to possess healing qualities by traditional Chinese medicine practitioners. The demand for pangolin products in Asian communities is so high that staggering numbers of pangolins are taken from the wild.
In Indonesia where I work with a dedicated Wildlife Conservation Society team, we recently helped law enforcement officials arrest and prosecute a ring of illegal traders who were shipping thousands of pangolins every year. At the time of their arrest they had over 2,000 frozen pangolins in their warehouse. We were fortunate to dismantle the trafficking network in this case, but the pangolin trade continues.
A recent study estimated that over the past 28 months 17,000 pangolins (most of them dead) were seized by law enforcement officials in several Asian countries. The total number trafficked over that period could be as high as 170,000 animals. As a consequence, several pangolin species are now listed as Endangered by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN). More....