The World's Most Trafficked Mammal Could Really Use a Friend

They exist in both Asia and Africa, with over one million having been taken from the wild in the past decade alone. But chances are, you’ve never heard of them, much less seen one. And you probably never will. 

They’re called pangolin, and they are the world’s most illegally traded and trafficked mammal. Unless you visit one of the few zoos around the globe which exhibit the creatures or go hunting with poachers, you’ll most likely never get a chance to meet these evasive creatures. Pangolins — which have existed in Asia and Africa for centuries — are an elusive mammal, with little known about the species and even less known about the threats facing their survival. Until now. 

Source: Ray Jensen of the African Working Pangolin Group

Source: Ray Jensen of the African Working Pangolin Group

They are the only mammals to have scales covering their bodies instead of fur or hide. They also look like a small ant-eater who maybe met a crocodile one night and decided to have offspring. When their name is uttered, most people think you’re saying “penguin” and have trouble understanding what they’re looking at when shown a picture. That’s because pangolin are unlike anything you’ve ever seen. They have long, strong claws on their front limbs meant for climbing and digging, and their offspring like to hitch rides on the back of mom’s tail as she forages. Like ant-eaters, pangolins feed mostly on ants and termites; some are terrestrial, some are arboreal, but all 8 species of pangolin — yes, 8 — are at severe risk in Africa and Asia due to poaching and habitat loss. 

The threats and issues surrounding the mammal’s survival have become notorious, with several well-established organizations and groups working to save all 8 species of pangolin before they are poached to extinction. Even David Attenborough jumped on board and added the Sunda Pangolin (Asia) to the list of 10 creatures on his “ark” which he plans to save. With such little information about pangolin available for helping the species, you may be wondering why conservationists, scientists and organizations around the world are fighting to save them. But perhaps it’s for the same reason(s) we fight to save any creature: because we can, and we should. And not just because they’re adorable (they literally roll into a ball when they are frightened and look like everyone’s favourite Pokemon character). 

Sadly, these cute, prehistoric creatures are facing such precipitous decline that all species across the globe are listed as either Vulnerable or Endangered on IUCN’s Red List. Pangolin also seldom survive in captivity, as not enough is known about their species to successfully breed, release and/or rehabilitate every saved pangolin. In fact, many global projects seeking to rehabilitate them in captivity do not attempt to breed them. Lisa Hywood, CEO & Founder of the Tikki Hywood Trust in Zimbabwe, has worked with pangolin for over twenty years and has been successful in the confiscation and release of pangolin back into safe areas of the country. Breeding does not, however, factor into such success. “Within Africa, we do not believe that breeding Pangolin in captivity is going to help the survival of the species,” says Lisa, “But rather, the efforts must be placed on habitat protection and law enforcement.” The political efforts to help save pangolins are there; the Vietnamese government, for example, issued a decree in which pangolin in Asia were given the highest category of legal protection, apparently banning the use, possession or sale of any live and/or dead pangolin. The success of such laws and regulations being enforced, however, appears to falter in preventing the poaching and sale of live pangolins. According to the IUCN/SSC Pangolin Specialist Group, the poaching of these animals in Asia “takes place despite prohibitions under CITES (Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora) through the establishment of zero export quotas for Asian pangolins removed from the wild and traded for primarily commercial purposes.” It also occurs in Africa, despite the 4 African pangolin species being listed as Vulnerable with the IUCN. As Hywood suggests, “We need to make legislation protecting Pangolin stronger in the countries where it is not…The next step is to get the African governments to understand the severity of this problem and in turn enforce their laws.” Indeed, the step extends to the Asian governments as well. 

For all intensive purposes, poaching is by far the largest threat today; but it certainly is not the only issue. Minimal information is known about the trade of this mammal — apart from its massive scale evidenced by the amount of confiscation of both live and dead pangolin in Asia — resulting in low levels of both public and political awareness. Add to that the lack of research into pangolin biology with the rapid loss of habitat, and you get an alarmingly clear picture of the detriments facing these creatures.

Source: Ray Jensen of the African Working Pangolin Group

Source: Ray Jensen of the African Working Pangolin Group

You may be surprised to learn that Africa — with four of the world’s pangolin species — has just as high of a demand as Asia does. Professor Ray Jensen, Co-Chairman of the APWG (African Pangolin Working Group), says much of the African pangolin poached is destined for the Chinese market, with pangolin also being used popularly for bush meat and medicinal uses in Africa just as they are in Asia. “The bush meat trade is a form of poaching,” says Jensen, “But this, I believe, is the current greatest threat to all four African pangolin species followed by poaching for the wildlife trade destined mostly for the Chinese market. Following that, electrified game farm fences, particularly in southern Africa, are a significant threat as they electrocute large numbers of pangolins.” For the APWG, mapping the distribution of Africa’s pangolin plays a significant role in the survival of the species; as Jensen suggests, the mapping of these creatures is “absolutely crucial as we do not know their current distribution and current maps are an estimate at best. We cannot effectively manage pangolins without this base-line knowledge.”

If the bush meat trade and poaching are the two most significant threats for Asian and African pangolins, why then do we see these creatures affected by severe loss of habitat? Two words: palm oil. 

It’s no secret that vast deforestation throughout Southeast Asia for palm oil production has devastated several species, violating both the rights and welfare of animals and humans alike. But few consider how harshly pangolin are affected by the palm oil industry, both in Asia and Africa. With pangolin inhabiting much of the areas where palm oil is produced,  the incessant logging, forest fragmentation and industrial plantations have slowly but surely been wreaking havoc on the future survival of the species. Increasing human demand for palm oil production in Borneo is pushing out mammals like pangolin who’s risk of being poached increases the more their habitat range is decreased. Some species like the Sunda actually utilize the hollows of trees to raise their offspring; with forest fragmentation, the proper habitat for these creatures is decreased in size severely, resulting in a pangolin’s inability to properly care for her or raise her offspring. Hywood and Jensen both agree that the demand for palm oil results in massive production of the product in both West and Central Africa, ultimately threatening the survival of pangolins. 

Like any species being poached to the brink of extinction, human greed has played a significant part in the demise of the pangolin and one has to wonder if the true culprit is not the palm oil industry as a whole. In 2015, Indonesia defended the country’s deforestation for the purpose of palm oil production on economic grounds, stating that the wealthier countries who consume palm oil are not “concerned” with deforestation. Plantation-workers-turned-pangolin-poachers find themselves resorting to poaching due to poor wages on palm oil plantations which do not adequately allow them to provide for their families financially. A 2015 interactive article by The Guardian suggests that “the average monthly wage for an Indonesian working full-time on a plantation is $47, and many turn to poaching because they can earn 10 times as much.” National Geographic’s 2015 article stipulates much of the same, discussing the lack of suitable working conditions for Indonesian plantation workers and their inability to earn sufficient funds through such work. It appears the old adage of “last resort” rings true here, as the palm oil industry continues to push workers to their limits at the same time as it pushes species to the brink of extinction.

There exists overwhelming evidence demonstrating that the high demand has resulted in the species being trafficked from Africa as pangolin populations are depleted in Asia. Some evidence goes so far as to suggest that pangolin trafficking follows the same routes out of Africa as elephant ivory and rhino horn. What was once an elusive creature secretly being trafficked around the globe on the black market with little protection has now become the focal point of major conservation efforts to save the species of a Pokemon-like creature with a gentle disposition and a will to survive. In 2013, TRAFFIC (The Wildlife Trade Monitoring Network) met in Singapore with other pangolin experts to create a conservation plan which would efficiently and successfully help save them. Similarly, the IUCN/SSC Pangolin Specialist Group developed an action plan in 2014 with the goal of conserving the species through methods of monitoring, policy recommendations, pangolin awareness and more (see pages 17-20 of the plan). Other organizations and groups dedicated to saving the Pangolin — such as Save Pangolins, Project Pangolin and Annimiticus — work in conjunction with CITES, IUCN and other associations to not only raise awareness, but to also end the trafficking and trade of pangolin worldwide. 

Saving pangolins and bringing an end to the threats against the species is not as simple as it may seem. Education and public awareness appear to be key in developing a solid understanding of the issues these animals face; but what about the palm oil industry? There seems to be no end in sight for palm oil production, and though sustainable palm oil exists, the developments necessary to end conflict palm production may come too late for species of pangolin in Asia and Africa. With poaching becoming a viable source of income for palm plantations workers, it is fair to say the poaching of pangolin will be difficult to abolish unless changes are made within palm production. The general consensus appears to be the same as it is for much of the world’s wildlife; until human destruction ceases, the elusive (and not so elusive) species of the globe like pangolin will continue to experience a hard, uphill battle for survival.

Cover image source: The Karell Travel Group.