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The world's most trafficked animal

30 April 2019
The world's most trafficked animal

The world’s most trafficked animal is probably not what you expect. It does not have ivory in its horn, nor is it valued for the pattern on its fur. It doesn’t live in the sea, fly through the air, and isn’t particularly fearsome, which might elevate its status as a hunting symbol.

The world’s most trafficked animal is the pangolin. The pangolin is a shy, cat-sized, anteater, of which there are eight different species found in Africa and Asia. What makes pangolins unique is their scales. They are the only mammals completely covered in scales, which they use to protect themselves from predators in the wild. If they are threatened, a pangolin will immediately curl into a tight ball and use their sharp-scaled tails to defend themselves. These scales are made of keratin – the very same stuff as human fingernails and hair!

Though pangolins may resemble reptiles, they are actually mammals. They are often known as “scaly anteaters” because they eat ants, termites and larvae. They don’t have any teeth, but they do have very long sticky tongues, which are sometimes longer than their whole body.

Illegal trade

Each year, hundreds of thousands of pangolins are cruelly poached from the wild and traded illegally. All eight species of the pangolin are listed as threatened on the International Union for Conservation of Nature Red List of Threatened Species. As with many illegally trafficked wildlife species, the motivations behind consumption of pangolin products vary significantly between nations and social groups.

All parts of the pangolin’s body, but particularly its scales, are used for a variety of purposes in traditional medicines; their scales are perceived to cure hangovers, treat liver conditions, and help new mothers breastfeed. No scientific evidence exists to support these beliefs. Pangolin meat is also viewed as a delicacy, eaten by wealthy middle classes and corporate elites as a public display of wealth and status.

It is undeniable that current demand for pangolin products far outweighs available supply. The report, ‘The global trafficking of pangolins: A comprehensive summary of seizures and trafficking routes from 2010-2015’, states that most international trafficking of pangolins (and their parts and derivatives) occurs in Asia. Of the top ten countries and territories involved in the most trafficking incidents, seven were in Asia, namely China, Vietnam, Malaysia, Hong Kong, Thailand, Laos and Indonesia. The remaining three were the US, Nigeria, and Germany.

Poaching and trafficking pangolins has devastating effects on animal welfare and ecological systems. Increasing international demand for pangolin products has led to huge financial incentives, which tempt some people in impoverished rural communities to take part in illegal activity they would not have done normally. For these communities, the scales from one pangolin can represent a life changing sum of money, allowing them to provide their families with food and medical treatment. World Animal Protection is calling for governments and the traditional Asian medicine community to support alternative livelihoods in rural communities that hunt pangolins, providing these communities with an alternative income to remove the temptation to engage in the illegal poaching and trafficking of these beautiful animals.

Protecting the pangolin

Fortunately, there are organisations doing good work to help protect pangolins. Over many years, World Animal Protection has assisted enforcement agencies and other partners to detect and prevent illegal activity that impacts animals. World Animal Protection works to protect animals from the illegal wildlife trade and keep the animals where they belong – in the wild. They have also worked with governments to improve welfare conditions for wild animals seized in illegal wildlife trade.

For example, in 2015, the Thai Army Black Rangers seized 150 pangolins which were being smuggled from Myanmar to China, via Thailand. It was one of the biggest seizures of live pangolins in Chiang Mai, with an estimated value of 3 million Thai Baht ($122,000 NZD – at the time). World Animal Protection worked with the Department of National Parks in Thailand to provide the best possible care for these victims of the illegal wildlife trade.

World Animal Protection is also calling for pangolins to be removed from the traditional medicine handbook in China, the Pharmacopoeia of the People’s Republic of China, and for investment in and promotion of herbal and synthetic alternatives.

What can we do here in New Zealand?

As New Zealanders, it is easy to feel very far away from problems that occur around the world, or feel helpless about a global problem like poaching. Fortunately, there are things that Kiwis can do to help pangolins, and other exotic endangered animals that are being poached to extinction.

Taking small steps, such as educating yourself about the plight of pangolins and sharing information is one way to help, because spreading the word about pangolins and the threats to them leads to more support for policy reform, and conservation efforts.

Getting behind a wildlife fund that protects pangolins, is another way to help. Consider making a donation to reputable organisations which are taking steps to protect pangolins.

Be an ‘animal friendly traveller’. If you’re visiting China, Vietnam, or other parts of Southeast Asia, do your research! Pangolins are considered a delicacy in these countries, so if you’re planning to eat at a restaurant, make sure you’re not supporting the pangolin trade. And of course, never buy pangolin products – whether it is pangolin medicine, pangolin wine, pangolin jewellery, pangolin scales, or pangolin leather. If ever you hear about pangolin products for consumption or sale, report it to the relevant authorities immediately.

This article was written with help from World Animal Protection New Zealand.

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