Pangolins are still the most heavily trafficked mammal in the world . Photo: Ruslan Rugoals / CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

World Pangolin Day 2019 pangolins see little respite from unprecedented levels of poaching

Pangolins are still the most heavily trafficked mammal in the world . Photo: Ruslan Rugoals / CC BY-NC-SA 2.0


Published 16 February 2019


Still the top target for wildlife traffickers

Cambridge, UK, 16th February 2019, World Pangolin Day—Until recently, pangolins or “scaly anteaters” were an obscure mammal few people had ever heard of. But now, seven years after the inaugural World Pangolin Day in 2012, they’ve been catapulted into the public eye—although for the wrong reasons. Hundreds of thousands of pangolins have been poached and all eight species are threatened with extinction in the wild, giving the animals the unenviable reputation of the world’s most trafficked mammal.

Pangolins are shy and secretive nocturnal creatures that live on ants and termites. Their defence mechanism is quickly to curl into a ball when threatened—which is where their name originates, “penggulung”, meaning “roller” in Malay.

What sets pangolins aside from other mammals, and also the reason behind them being a top target for poachers and traffickers, is that their bodies are covered in hard scales of keratin—the same substance that makes up human fingernails.

Within some Asian and African cultures, pangolin scales are perceived to have medicinal value and they are consumed as a remedy for a variety of conditions including asthma and trouble breast feeding. Pangolin meat is also considered a delicacy within certain circles, with its consumption seen as a display of wealth or social status.

To satisfy high demand from Asian markets, an estimated 20 tonnes of pangolins and their parts, equivalent to tens of thousands of individual animals, are illegally traded each year. A recent TRAFFIC report revealed 27 new smuggling routes are used by pangolin traffickers annually and at least 120 tonnes of whole pangolins, parts, and scales were confiscated by law enforcement in just five years.

As alarming as these findings are, the true volume of pangolin trafficking is likely to be far higher, and there have already been some significant pangolin seizures in 2019.

In January alone, over 8 tonnes of pangolin scales were seized in Hong Kong en route to Viet Nam from Nigeria, with another tonne seized in two separate incidents in Viet Nam and Uganda. Just last week Malaysian authorities, acting on an anonymous tip-off, uncovered a major illegal pangolin processing facility stocked with thousands of containers packed with frozen pangolin bodies. Over 30 tonnes of pangolin products were confiscated.

The volumes involved in the illegal pangolin trade are staggering, revealing that the listing of all eight species in Appendix I of CITES, which prohibits all international trade, has seemingly done little to deter poachers.

TRAFFIC’s trade monitoring reveals the ongoing issue of African pangolins being sourced for trafficking to Asia. The scarcity of Asian pangolins, alongside the large numbers of Asian nationals living in Africa, combined with transport links between the two continents and a lucrative destination consumer market, has coalesced into one of the most pressing poaching crises of our time.

If we are to counteract the ruthless international syndicates behind pangolin trafficking, a co-ordinated response across countries and continents is urgently needed.

We’re working to tackle the crisis throughout the pangolin trade chain, supporting enforcement agencies in Africa and Asia to help them detect and prosecute traffickers, as well as working in destination markets, developing behavioural change initiatives to reduce consumer demand.

There is hope for wild pangolins, but there is no denying the scale of the poaching crisis. Collaboration between countries, NGOs, and enforcement networks is essential if we are to see a brighter future for threatened pangolins in time for World Pangolin Day 2020.


Help us fight back for threatened wildlife and against poaching and illegal trade this World Pangolin Day.

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