By Richard Conniff
Early this year, a Chinese fishing vessel ran aground in Tubbataha Reefs Natural Park, a UNESCO World Heritage site in the Philippines. The 12 crewmen were already in trouble for damaging the protected coral reef. But then the Philippine Coast Guard crew working to re-float the vessel got a look at the cargo: 400 boxes of what may be the world’s most heavily trafficked wild mammal contraband — pangolins, carefully butchered and frozen to be served up as a status symbol on the dinner plates of the nouveaux riches in China and Vietnam.
If you have never even heard of pangolins, much less pangolin poaching, you are not alone. Even conservationists tend not to know much about these armor-plated animals that are commonly known as scaly anteaters, perhaps because they are small, uncharismatic, and nocturnal. The headlines tend to focus on bigger and seemingly more immediate problems, notably the slaughter last year of 35,000 elephants for their ivory and 810 rhinos for their horns. But almost unnoticed, the illegal trade in pangolins has raged out of control, to meet demand in East Asia for both their meat and their scales, which are roasted and used, like rhino horn, in traditional medicines.
Within the last year alone:
• French officials seized 110 pounds of pangolin scales, said to be worth $100,000, being transshipped via Charles De Gaulle Airport from Cameroon to Vietnam.
• Customs officials in Vietnam discovered a cargo of 6.2 tons of frozen pangolins being smuggled in from Indonesia.
• Police in India stopped a shipment of scales taken from 300 pangolins.
• Police in Thailand stopped a pickup truck carrying 102 pangolins.
Annual seizures run to about 10,000 pangolins, according to Dan Challender, co-chair of the pangolin specialist group for the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN). But that number is almost certainly a small fraction of what gets through to the marketplace. More....