Every year, 100,000 pangolins are taken from the wild and sold illegally. That is an alarming rate of roughly one every five minutes, giving it the unenviable title of the world’s most illegally trafficked mammal. Fortunately for this unique animal, delegates of the 182 CITES nations decided unanimously on Wednesday at the 17th Conference of Parties to upgrade all species to CITES Appendix I, therefore enforcing a total trade ban.
Over the last decade, more than a million pangolins have been killed to fuel the demand in China and Vietnam for their meat and scales used in traditional medicine as a cancer cure, despite being made of keratin (the same substance as our hair and fingernails). This relentless poaching has decimated populations of the four Asian species, of which two (Sunda and Chinese) are critically endangered; leading poachers to turn to the four African species, which are currently listed as vulnerable on the IUCN Red List.
Pangolins are truly unique as they are the only known mammal to have a body covered in scales and they provide easy money for poachers as their main defence mechanism is to simly curl into a ball, much like a hedgehog. This makes it incredibly simple to just pick them up off the ground. With the trade in pangolins booming, prices of pangolin scales have risen by up to ten times in just five years, with a kilogram of scales selling for as much as $3000. This lucrative trade has been evidenced in recent years through huge seizures, one as recently as June this year where 11 tonnes of African pangolin scales were seized in Hong Kong.
Indonesia were the only nation to oppose the new protections for Sunda and Chinese pangolins, whereas China abstained from the vote, arguing that pangolins were caught for bush-meat in several other countries and that habitat loss was also a major factor in their decline. Despite these views, the parties agreed to upgrade its listing, offering the pangolin greater protection. This is great news for the species and will hopefully lead to further conservation efforts.
Many species that are suffering badly due to the illegal wildlife trade, such as tigers, rhinos and elephants; are kept in zoos and are a part of worldwide breeding programs. Unfortunately, pangolins are a species that do not thrive in captivity. In fact only six zoos currently keep pangolins. It is unknown exactly why they do not thrive, but many of those that have died in captivity usually died from digestive problems, suggesting that there is a lack of knowledge about these creatures’ eating habits in the wild. With no substantial captive population, it is therefore imperative that wild populations are protected further.
The CITES decision is an encouraging first step towards ensuring the survival of the pangolin, but still more needs to be done. As is often the case with the illegal wildlife trade, the rewards often outweigh the risks. In order to stop poaching, there needs to be a strong deterrent. In pangolin strongholds, anti-poaching patrols should operate regularly to catch poachers in the act and to deter others from engaging in this illegal activity. Furthermore, sentences need to be harsher in order to ensure that people do not consider poaching to be a worthy activity. Other countries should follow Zimbabwe’s example. Here, ¾ of seizures in 2015 resulted in a 9 year prison sentence for at least one party involved, and this has resulted in a decrease in pangolin poaching here, suggesting that harsher sentences do work as deterrents.
Southeast Asian countries are under the impression that pangolin scales can cure various ailments and consider their meat to be a delicacy. In order to curb the ever-increasing demand, cooperation with the main consumer countries (China and Vietnam) is needed to investigate reasons for demand and develop strategies to diffuse these beliefs. As well as this, the plight of the pangolin needs to be publicised more widely. I’m sure there are numerous people in the world that have never even heard of such a creature. If more people knew of its existence, they may be more inclined to worry about its plight and aid in efforts to save it from extinction.
Hopefully, upgrading the pangolin to CITES Appendix I will be the start of the road towards ensuring that all eight species of pangolin begin to recover from the relentless poaching, because if things do not start to improve soon, there is a real risk that they will be hunted to extinction.
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