Humanitarian Action

The world's most trafficked mammal gets extra protection - will it be enough to save it?

An animal carer feeds a baby female pangolin with liquified food from a syringe at Bangkok's Dusit Zoo on August 1, 2002, one of several hundred mammals recently seized in raids by Thai police. [Thailand has long been notorious as a transit point for the trafficking of drugs, weapons and people - now a new commodity is being smuggled, the scaly, ant-eating pangolin.]

Pangolins are slow moving, nocturnal creatures found across Asia and Africa. Image: Reuters

Keith Breene
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They look like magical creatures from a children’s storybook. The only mammals to have scales, Pangolins are endearingly strange to look at and known for their gentle nature and intelligence.

They may be one of the planet’s oddest-looking animals, but it is another distinction which is troubling the pangolin. The mammals are believed to be the world’s most trafficked and severe poaching has brought them to the brink of extinction.

Now, the convention on trade in endangered species, CITES, has agreed to give the pangolin the highest level of international protection in an effort to save it.

Image: Tikki Hywood Trust

A deadly tradition

Pangolins are slow moving, nocturnal creatures found across Asia and Africa. About the size of a small cat, they are completely covered with scales made of keratin – also found in human nails – which start off as soft and harden as the creatures get older.

Image: Pangolin Research

The armour-like scales come into play when pangolins feel threatened; they curl up into a spiky ball. While that may be an excellent defence against a lion, against a poacher it is fatal. The animals are simply picked up and thrown into the back of a truck.

Over a million have been taken from the wild in the last decade. The trade is being driven principally by demand for their scales, which are used in traditional Chinese medicine.

Recently Hong Kong officials said they discovered more than 4,000 kilograms of African pangolin scales hidden in cargo labelled "sliced plastics" from Cameroon.

Image: Hong Kong customs

The haul, worth $1.25 million, was estimated to represent between 1,100 and 6,600 pangolins.

Complete ban

Until now, the trade in Asian pangolins was banned but trade in African ones was not. That not only greatly increased demand for the African animal, it allowed Asian pangolins to be passed off as legal African ones.

Now eight species of the mammal across Asia and Africa are to be protected by a complete ban on trade.

"This is a huge win and rare piece of good news for some of the world's most trafficked and endangered animals," Ginette Hemley from WWF told the BBC.

"Giving Pangolins full protection under Cites will eliminate any question about legality of trade, making it harder for criminals to traffic them and increasing the consequences for those who do."

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