Pangolins are the most illegally trafficked mammals in the world. For decades they have been poached indiscriminately throughout their range in Africa and Asia, driving their numbers in the wild to dangerously low levels. That’s why, four years ago, the Humane Society of the United States and Humane Society International, with other environmental and animal protection groups, petitioned the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to protect them under the Endangered Species Act. The agency agreed that protections may be warranted, and initiated a status review of the species, which is required by law to be completed within one year of the petition being filed.
Unfortunately, we haven’t heard a peep out of the USFWS since. Meanwhile, the killing of pangolins has continued at an astonishing rate. That’s why today, we and our coalition partners, Born Free USA, the Center for Biological Diversity and the Natural Resources Defense Council, are putting the FWS on notice: begin the process of protecting all pangolin species under the ESA promptly, or face a lawsuit in federal court.
There is no time to lose. More than a million pangolins were killed by poachers between 2004 and 2014, and this is a conservative estimate. The demand has been driven by the fact that pangolin scales and meat are prized for their use in traditional “medicines” and as a culinary delicacy in Asia. Earlier this year, authorities seized more than 60 tons of pangolin scales during massive busts in Singapore and Malaysia.
The United States has contributed to the problem, because there’s a market for pangolin parts and products right here, on U.S. soil. A 2015 HSI investigation uncovered U.S.-based companies selling “medicinal” pangolin parts and products online to American customers, and HSUS and HSI have also documented pangolin scales for sale in shops in Portland, Oregon and New York City. Between 2004 and 2013, U.S. authorities seized at least 29,000 pangolin products, almost all “medicinal” products. Many of these products were manufactured in China and are illegal for export under domestic Chinese law.
The more we learn about pangolins, the stronger the case for their protection becomes. These shy and gentle creatures play an all-important role in their ecosystems, by controlling insect populations — a single pangolin can eat some 70 million ants and termites per year. When they sense danger, pangolins protect themselves by rolling their bodies into a tight ball, making them easy prey for poachers who can easily snatch them up.
In 2016, at the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES), 183 member nations voted to give the highest level of protection to all eight pangolin species and banned the international commercial trade in pangolin parts. HSI’s delegation to CITES led this fight, and it was a tremendous step toward shutting down the international trade in pangolin parts.
It is now time for the United States to step up and be a leader on this issue. We cannot fight pangolin poaching around the world if we continue to provide a market for pangolin products on our soil. Our nation has a moral – and legal – obligation to curb the pangolin trade, and to prevent this important species from continuing to careen toward extinction. If those with the authority to take action fail to act quickly on behalf of this beleaguered species, we will not hesitate to step up the fight.