Pangolins (Manis penta-dactyla dalmanni) are illegally smuggled at an alarming rate, according to a new report published in Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment.
Researchers from the Public Security Bureau for Forest in China’s Yunnan province and the University of Oxford in the United Kingdom analyzed official records of pangolin seizures. They found Chinese officials seized 2.59 tons of scales (representing 4,870 pangolins) and 259 animals in 2010.
Sometimes called scaly anteaters, there are eight species of pangolins; four reside in Asia, and four in Africa. Chinese and Sunda pangolins are listed as endangered on the IUCN Red List, whereas their Indian, Philippine, and African counterparts are listed as near threatened.
Similar to some armadillos, pangolins roll into a ball and use their serrated scales as armor against predators. However, this passive defense strategy allows poachers to simply pick them up and toss them in a sack. Under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora, it is illegal to remove pangolins from the wild for international trade.
Smugglers are also using postal systems to transport the stolen creatures, the report found. Since April 2013, one ton of scales equating to 1,660 individual animals was shipped through the mail. In addition, Beijing customs officials seized five packages of scales weighing over 150 pounds in November.
The seizures analyzed in the study resulted in 43 enforcement cases. Smugglers receive anywhere from a few years to life in prison. But for many, the risk is worth it as the trade becomes more profitable. Used in traditional Chinese medicine, pangolin scales are thought to remedy a host of maladies ranging from abscesses and arthritis to colicky children and possession. As Asia’s economy continues to grow, so does the demand for scales. Pangolin scales are currently worth $300 per pound — twice the rate they were five years ago — according to the report.
Since pangolins only produce one offspring per year, conservationists are worried the harvest of these scaly anteaters is unsustainable. The prospect of regulated farming is bleak, the report found, because of the species low reproductive rate and a history of failed attempts with other species in China.
The authors suggest education and emphasis on modern medicine is the way forward. Compared to the plights of more charismatic creatures such as elephants and rhinos, many people are simply unaware of the conservation issues surrounding pangolins. And shifting away from traditional Chinese medicine will benefit both pangolins and public health, they said.
Originally published at The Wildlife Society, March 14, 2014