Pangolins in peril: The most heavily hunted animals on Earth?

ALERT member Alice Hughes is based in China -- the global epicenter of demand for the illegal wildlife trade.  She tells us about a little-known animal whose fate is looking increasingly dire.

If you were to ask a member of the public what is the most hunted and trafficked species on Earth, chances are few would get it right.  In fact, many would never have even heard of it.

  An African tree-pangolin  (photo by William Laurance)

An African tree-pangolin (photo by William Laurance)

That animal is the Pangolin -- a creature so peculiar-looking that it seems to have been dreamed-up by a mischievous Creator. 

There are, in fact, eight species of Pangolins on Earth, all found in warmer regions of Asia and Africa.  While looking vaguely like an armadillo, pangolins are unique creatures that aren't closely related to anything else.

Prized as culinary delicacies and in some traditional 'medicines', Pangolins are hurting.  In just the last decade, an estimated one million Pangolins have been poached and illegally trafficked.  Nearly 220,000 of the animals were seized by authorities from 2010 to 2012, and that's likely just a small fraction of the number actually being traded.

To put these numbers in perspective, around 110 Pangolins are currently being seized for every seized rhino.  It's a big worry because pangolins are slow-breeding and solitary creatures. 

Recent seizures of illegal shipments, some involving tons of killed and frozen animals, hint at the scale of the international trade. 

  Thousands of dead pangolins seized in an illegal shipment in Indonesia

Thousands of dead pangolins seized in an illegal shipment in Indonesia

Hong Kong is a distribution hub for Pangolins between China and the rest of Asia.  Nine-tenths of all Pangolin seizures have occurred in China, Hong Kong, and to a lesser extent four other Southeast-Asian countries.  China and Vietnam are considered the biggest markets for Pangolin products.

Yet few people in Southeast Asia understand the Pangolin's plight. 

A recent survey of 1,000 Hong Kong residents showed that 7% had never heard of Pangolins, 85% wrongly regarded Pangolin scales as medicinal, and 50% thought their meat was medicinal.  Moreover, 33% were unsure of the legal status of eating Pangolin and 11% regarded it as legal.

Unfortunately, similar confusion reigns throughout China.  In mainland China, the trading of older “certified” pangolin parts is legal, and trading certificates for wildlife products are widely forged and abused.

Pangolins are captured in the wild using a variety of methods.  Once in captivity their body weight may be almost doubled through force feeding or subcutaneous fluid injections, as Pangolins are sold by weight.  Professional traffickers sell Pandolins for hundreds of dollars per kilogram.

In just the last decade, Pangolins have gone from being so common that you could hardly fail to see them at night in Asians forests, to being so rare that Chinese rangers laugh if you ask them if Pangolins are in their park.  On being given 42 confiscated Pangolins earlier this year, rangers at Bac Ninh park simply resold them.

As a result of such intense exploitation, two of the Asian Pangolin species are now formally listed as endangered, and the remainder are clearly in trouble.  Unless strong actions are taken soon, we could witness the dramatic decline and even global extinction of several Pangolin species.

It'd be a sad end for what might be the most heavily hunted animals on Earth.