Scales and Justice – The Trouble with the Pangolin Trade

This century has seen consumer demand for sustainable production disrupt markets across the globe. Yet an enigmatic small to medium sized mammal called the pangolin continues to be taken from the wild at an unending rate. What is causing this destruction and can the pangolin be saved?

White-bellied pangolin
White-bellied pangolin (Phataginus tricuspis) © Darren Pietersen / African Pangolin Working Group

There are 8 extant species of pangolin, four of which are found in Africa and another four reside in Asia. Though they vary in size, weight, colour and bone structure the 8 species share a curious morphology; the pangolin, a mammal, is covered in overlapping scales and this gives it the most unusual visage. The animal will curl into a ball when threatened and this defensive posture helps protect it against predation from other animals, such as big cats. It makes easy work of ants and termites as it has a tongue that is attached near the pelvis that it can extend to a length greater than that of its own head and body. Some pangolins live on the ground, others spend time in trees and all are well adapted to digging. Thought to have evolved around 80 million years ago, they are still somewhat understudied, shy beasts. Despite wide distribution, they are reticent creatures and exact population statistics are not easily discernible.
Hunted in the wild and also bred in captivity, the meat of the pangolin is eaten, the skin is used for leather products and the scales are used in traditional medicines. The animal’s scales are keratinous; keratin being the protein that also forms human hair and human fingernails. The scales are used as an ingredient in Asian traditional medicines to supposedly improve blood circulation and to cure asthma and cancer and whatever else your local pangolin dealer might want to upsell. Of course broadly speaking, there is a well recognised dichotomy between scientific medicine and traditional medicine practices, yet the near annihilation of some pangolin species in recent decades necessitates that those claiming these medicinal properties owe the rest of the world sufficient warrant for their position.
The pangolin is thought to be the most trafficked animal on the planet and stronger laws have been enacted to counteract illegal global trade. Almost every country on the planet is a Party to The Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES). In 2017, at the 17th meeting of the Conference of the Parties to CITES it was agreed that all 8 species of pangolin would be included in Appendix I of the agreement. Up until this meeting several pangolin species (particularly the African species) were Appendix II only. Appendix II includes species ‘not necessarily threatened with extinction, but in which trade must be controlled in order to avoid utilization incompatible with their survival’. Whereas Appendix I includes, ‘species threatened with extinction. Trade in specimens of these species is permitted only in exceptional circumstances’.

Temminck’s ground pangolin
Temminck’s ground pangolin (Smutsia temminckii) © Darren Pietersen / African Pangolin Working Group

Governments of the world show willing in this battle against pangolin extinction but enforcement is a huge problem. Much like the trades in rhino horn or tiger parts a strategy to upend this market requires skill, cooperation and honesty from different people operating in different places. These animals are notoriously difficult to manage in captivity which accounts for why so many are taken from the wild and also means that reintroduction programmes are invariably unsuccessful. They are also captured with relative ease and don’t reproduce especially quickly.

Data shows that African pangolin numbers are now suffering to meet the demand in Asia. The education of those enforcing laws is required; this includes customs officers as well as those involved in prosecutions. Skills in identifying parts and derivatives are needed to be able to stop illegal specimens crossing borders. Putting an end to the demand for the parts appears to be the most daunting task of all. Again, education may prove to be the answer but quelling the want of traditional markets does not simply appear to be a case of waiving away superstitious thinking with the hand of science and reason. Something more integrative is most likely required, which would involve working alongside traditional medicine practitioners to put a stop to the illegal trades.