What is the most abused wildlife species many people have never heard of? It may be an obscure species known as the pangolin – the only mammals with scales covering most of their bodies, and often referred to as “walking artichokes” because of their unusual appearance. They are strict insectivores, eating only ants and termites, and they curl up in a ball to defend themselves from potential threats. But their hard scales and natural defense mechanisms cannot protect them from exploitation by humans. It is estimated that more than 960,000 pangolins were taken from the wild and traded illegally over the past decade, making them the most trafficked mammal in the world.
Today, a coalition of wildlife groups petitioned the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to list pangolins as endangered under the Endangered Species Act. The coalition—the Humane Society of the United States, Humane Society International, the International Fund for Animal Welfare , Born Free, and the Center for Biological Diversity—argue that these unique animals are in grave danger. If granted, the listing would secure pangolins protection from being trafficked across U.S. borders.
Pangolin scales are prized for their use in traditional “medicines” and as a culinary delicacy. The enormous demand for pangolin scales and meat in Asia has fueled a huge trade in pangolins, driving the four Asian species of pangolins to the brink of extinction. This led a United Nations body, known as the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES), to impose a zero-export quota for the four Asian pangolin species in 2000, effectively making commercial exports of these wild animals illegal. This ban, along with steep declines in the populations of pangolins, has led traders to turn to the four African pangolin species to satisfy their deadly demand for pangolin scales and meat. Pangolins now stand alongside elephants and rhinos as victims of the poaching crisis in Africa.
With an estimated 60 metric tons of smuggled pangolins parts and their products seized over the past decade, the illegal trade persists on a massive scale. It now poses a serious threat to the continued survival of these eight species.
While most illegal shipments of pangolins and their products are destined for China and Viet Nam, according to research conducted by Humane Society International, there is significant demand for pangolin products in the U.S. U.S. authorities seized at least 26,000 pangolin products over the past decade, almost all “medicinal” products. An INTERPOL rule of thumb dictates that seized shipments only represent approximately 10 percent of the total volume traded on the black market, which means that as many as 250,000 illegal products may have made it past authorities and entered the U.S.
Further research by HSI has revealed that many traditional medicine products that contain pangolin scale powder are available for purchase here in the U.S., on online marketplaces and in brick-and-mortar shops. Many of these products were manufactured in China and are illegal for export under domestic Chinese law. Yet they keep appearing on store shelves here in the U.S.
Last month, HSI organized the first-ever Pangolin Range States Meeting, co-hosted by the governments of Viet Nam and the United States, and attended by over thirty pangolin range states. If protection is granted under the Endangered Species Act, the import and sale of pangolins and their parts would be prohibited in the U.S. Since the U.S. is a major importer of pangolins, this would be a significant step toward protecting these enigmatic animals. States are also taking action to protect pangolins. A Washington state ballot initiative, tentatively set for a vote this fall, would restrict the trade in pangolin products and parts of eight other highly endangered animals, including elephants and rhinos.
Together with countries that have pangolins and especially those that play a role in the market for pangolins and their products, we as a global community can make a real difference in whether pangolins will continue to grace our planet for years to come.