This incredible, pinecone-sized creature is poached more than elephants, tigers and rhinos combined

Aug 20, 2015

Illegal trafficking of animals for Asian medicine is a rampant problem. Despite international protections, poachers slaughter millions of elephants, tigers and rhinos a year and sell their parts as cures for ailments ranging from headaches to cancer.

Now international groups are seeking to protect a small mammal that's trafficked more than those three combined and is on the brink of extinction: the pangolin.

Often referred to as "scaly anteaters," pangolins resemble an artichoke or a pinecone. Roughly the size of a house cat, they walk on their hind legs and dig for termites and other insects with their oversized front claws. Brown keratin scales cover this creature from nose to tail, making it the only mammal with a suit of armor.

"They sort of have this geometric look to them. Adorably odd ... kind of like tanks with tails," says Sarah Uhlemann, international director for the Center for Biological Diversity and one of the head litigators petitioning for pangolin protections.

While these scales protect the pangolin from its natural predators, their defensive strategy plays right into poachers’ hands. When frightened, pangolins curl up into a ball, protecting their exposed underside with their scales. Poachers can easily pluck the immobile creatures from their habitats in Asia and Africa and sell them on black markets around the world.

Despite international trade bans beginning in 2000, poachers continue to hunt pangolin for their meat, and their scales are ground-up and sold in Chinese medicine markets. "[These products] supposedly treat a variety of ailments — everything from dispersing congealed blood to promoting menstruation, dispelling stiffness and swelling, healing liver problems," Uhlemann says. “[But] there's absolutely no scientific evidence that Pangolin scales have any medicinal benefits."

The pangolin market is booming as the price of scales has jumped from $300 per kilogram to $600 per kilogram since 2008. As a result, several species of pangolin are suffering serious population declines and face extinction. Two out of the four Asian species — the Sunda and the Chinese pangolin — are listed as endangered by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), and the other two species are threatened. Researchers worry that if current poaching trends continue, 90 percent of Chinese pangolin will disappear in the next 20 years.

Furthermore, as practitioners of Chinese medicine voraciously consume Asian pangolin, poachers have shifted to African species whose numbers are now rapidly dwindling. While scientists are not sure how many total pangolin exist in the wild, they estimate that some one million animals were illegally traded in the last decade.

Most of the pangolin trade routes terminate in Asia, particularly in China and Vietnam, but large Chinese medicine markets exist in the United States, too. The Center for Biological Diversity partnered with the International Fund for Animal Welfare, Born Free USA and the Humane Society and estimated that at least 26,000 pangolin imports were seized in the United States between 2004 and 2013. Uhlemann notes the US has seen "a vast increase in both the numbers of seizures, but also the numbers of animals actually found in those seizures," more than five-fold.

However, varied levels of protection for the pangolin pose a problem when it comes to policing wildlife crimes in the US. All Asian pangolin species have international trade bans and protections under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species CITES, but the four African species do not. Additionally out of the eight species in existence, only one — the Temminck’s ground pangolin of Africa — has federal protections under the US Endangered Species Act.

Because all of the pangolin species closely resemble each other and the majority of pangolin products are trafficked as powders, law enforcement cannot easily identify protected Asian pangolin entering the United States from their non-protected African cousins.

For these reasons, the Center for Biological Diversity and its colleagues recently petitioned the US Fish and Wildlife Service to protect the remaining seven species of pangolin under the Endangered Species Act. The government has 90 days to assess petition and make an initial ruling. If they ultimately find that the pangolin merits listing, import and interstate trade of pangolin and its products would be banned.

Uhlemann says in addition to legally protecting the pangolin against trade, an endangered species listing raises its profile and awareness of the threats it faces. “I think if people realized that their choices were potentially extinguishing the existence of this incredible species, that they would change their choices and not be purchasing Pangolins anymore,” she says. While a decision is a ways off, Uhlemann is optimistic that the ruling will be favorable and believes that shutting down trade in the US is a crucial first step to conserving this one-of-a-kind creature. 

This story first aired as an interview on PRI's Living on Earth.

The title of a previous version of this story misstated the size of the pangolin.