The scaled nightmare fuel you see before you are known as pangolins: the single most trafficked animal in the world. Not exotic birds. Not snakes. Not elephants, tigers, or even baby seals. This shit.
It certainly raises a lot of questions. What are they? How many people make it their life’s work to nab one? And more importantly… why?
What are pangolins?
Aside from being my personal sleep paralysis demon, the pangolin is a mammal found in Southeast Asia and Africa. They do very little apart from eating ants, termites, and larvae with their bizarrely long tongues – which can sometimes reach lengths greater than its entire body.
The name itself, despite sounding like one of Benedict Cumberbatch’s attempts at saying “penguin”, actually derives from the Malay “peng-goling”, translating to “that which rolls up.” This is reflected in the fact that pangolins are essentially hapless when it comes to humans. Its main defence mechanism is exactly what the name suggests – rolling up into a sphere. Capturing one is effectively as easy as picking up a football.
What is it good for?
While pangolins have been hunted and captured for centuries, there’s a surging appetite for the “scaly anteaters” in China and Vietnam. But their meat, which is a delicacy in its own right, isn’t really what everyone’s clamouring for. It’s their scales, which are currently one of the most sought-after commodities in all of Southeast Asia. 195,000 pangolins were trafficked for their scales in 2019 alone.
Pangolin scales are made of keratin, the same protein that you will find makes up your fingernails and hair. According to the New York Times, within certain countries, there’s a widely-held belief that these very scales possess medicinal properties. Here’s a list of some ailments that they’ve been used to treat:
- Skin diseases
- Liver function
- Blood clotting
Of course, there is zero medical basis for any of these claims. Rhino horns, which are also made of keratin, have been empirically proven to be devoid of any healing qualities, so this likely remains true in the case of pangolin scales.
Even if the pseudo-science were to vanish from the face of the Earth tomorrow, however, the scales have also been used to make fashion accessories, souvenirs, and ornamental displays. The going rate? Over $3,000 per kilo. Meaning it’s a booming trade that isn’t going anywhere fast.
Edge of Extinction
The pangolin populations are being decimated as we speak, namely around Southeast Asia. The four Asian species of pangolin are now considered either “endangered” (Indian and Malaysian pangolins) or “critically endangered” (Chinese and Sunda pangolins).
In recent times, the hunt for pangolins has migrated to Africa. According to the African Pangolin Working Group, upon seeing pangolin scales in Africa being sold at dirt-cheap prices (and in some cases, being thrown out entirely), workers from China and Vietnam saw the business opportunity and started exporting them home.
An estimated 116,990-233,980 pangolins were killed between 2011-2013, based on a report on seizures – which represents only the tip of the trade. Experts believe that seizures represent as little as 10% of the actual volume of pangolins traded illegally.
Black Market Demand
As pangolin populations dwindled and demand surges, the trade is only becoming more lucrative. The same gangs operating in narcotics around Asia and Africa have gotten involved, trading pills for pangolins, and creating an active black market.
These gangs have started routing them through Europe, as customs agents in Southeast Asia begin to spot the illegal shipments. An estimated 27 new trade routes for pangolins spring up annually, despite the best efforts of conservationist protection movements.
In 2016, a treaty of over 180 governments announced an agreement that would end all legal trade of pangolins and establish further protections of the species from extinction. In June 2020, China increased protection for the native Chinese pangolin (Manis pentadactyla) by closing an important loophole for consumption of the species in-country. The government has also stated that it will no longer allow the use of pangolin scales in traditional medicine.
Despite the best efforts of the WWF and TRAFFIC, illegal trade of the species persists to a great extent and the demand is shown to be increasing. Pangolins may need to figure out a more effective survival strategy than rolling into a ball if they don’t want to be ground into a skin cream.