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Meet the worlds most trafficked animal, the pangolin

December 21, 2017

The worlds most trafficked animal is one you probably have not heard before. They are the only mammal completely covered in scales, and they can either live in the trees or on the ground. Meet, the pangolin. This odd-looking animal is facing a serious threat to its existence and the reason for it are the scales that cover the animals entire body.

The hundreds of scales that cover the body of the pangolin are made out of keratin, the same material that our nails are made out of. When faced with a threat from a predator, the pangolin rolls itself up into a ball and the scales prevent the predator from turning the pangolin into lunch. However, these scales are in high demand in China where they are used in traditional Chinese medicine, or TCM. TCM is a medical system that originated in ancient China and has evolved over thousands of years. TCM places great value on thousands of different types of plants and animal parts, and the scales of the pangolin are a hot item. The scales are believed to hold medicinal properties and its believed that these scales can “cure” various ailments such as, rheumatoid arthritis, asthma, and cancer.

 

This makes the pangolin a prized commodity, because naturally people afflicted with those ailments want a relief and are willing to try anything to cure themselves or at least ease their symptoms. The problem however is that the pangolin becomes hunted beyond sustainability leading to population crashes in the habitats where it is found. The pangolin also becomes a gold mine for the people who live near them, many of these people are poor villagers with low economic security. To them finding a pangolin and selling it into the illegal wildlife trade is a way to improve their life, for the trade in pangolins and in other rare wildlife has become very lucrative.

 

The pangolin received some protection in 2016 when CITES (Convention on International Trade in Endangered Fauna and Flora, an international agreement that protects wild animals and plants from international trade that could endanger their survival) placed the pangolin on Appendix I. Being placed on Appendix I means that the pangolin has the strictest possible protection international trade. Although this should mean that the pangolin no longer has to worry about being poached for its scales, wildlife laws are rarely enforced in the regions where the pangolin lives, or in the countries where the demand for pangolin is high.

On Wednesday November 29th of this year, customs officials in China seized the biggest shipment of pangolin scales ever, a whopping 13.1 tons. This horrifying shipment shows that while protection laws for the pangolin sound good on paper, they mean nothing if the laws are not enforced. Chinese officials said that as many as 30,000 pangolins were killed to supply that many scales.

 

There are eight sub-species of pangolin and most are nocturnal. Pangolins are insectivores, meaning their diet consists mainly of insects, and since they have poor vision they rely primarily on their hearing and acute sense of smell to navigate their environments. Pangolins are found in Africa and throughout Asia. This fascinating mammal needs the help of governments who control the areas that the pangolin calls home, more enforcement needs to be done in order to stop poachers from hunting the pangolin for its scales. It can also be saved if less people buy the scales for ailments that are not cured by simple keratin. When the demand for pangolin scales are stopped then the suppliers will no longer see the pangolin as a lucrative resource to be hunted in such an unsustainable way. 





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