Opinion: Pangolins need more protection from poaching

Rhinos and tigers are nothing new in the poaching world, but a pangolin? What even is that? Plug it into a Google search and you’ll see a rare, scale-covered mammal not much larger than a house cat, with the same existential awkwardness as a platypus. But, absurd as they are, these animals can be pretty endearing.

When it comes to anti-poaching efforts, international agencies and governments tend to put their bank behind universally recognized and beloved animals. Pangolins lack the elegance of the endangered tiger, the impressive, stubborn presence of the nearly extinct rhino and the nostalgic quietness of the vulnerable panda – yet this gentle creature is by far the most trafficked animal in the world.

Every year over 10,000 pangolins are trafficked and killed, while only 200 tigers are lost and around 1,000 rhinos are slaughtered. With such high poaching numbers, the pangolin is on a path toward extinction before the public even realizes what a pangolin is.

Or, it could pass into extinction – unnoticed and unmissed – precisely because of that fact.

Pangolins aren’t treasured for their furs or ivory the same way other animals are. Pangolins are trafficked by the thousands for their pine-green scales – made of the same keratin found in your fingernails – which are boiled off their bodies for use in traditional medicine. The scales are sold for about $600 per kilo in traditional medicine shops in Hanoi, Vietnam, unattractively curled and wrinkled.

Thousands of years of superstition, however, have insisted that pangolin scales will help combat slow blood circulation, cure weak lactation in women and when ground and eaten with rice, have cancer-curing properties. It’s less important to the paying customers whether or not these remedies are proven successful, than that they believe they will.

The more lucrative sale of pangolin comes not in the medicine shops however, but in the elite restaurants of Vietnam and southern China. In these fine-dining establishments, frequented by the successful businessmen and women of the recently booming economy, the act of ordering a pangolin is an act of declaring to your business partners that you have come into good fortune.

In one elite Vietnamese restaurant, you can order a pangolin “in a variety of appetizing preparations,” including stir fried pangolin skin with onion and mushroom, pangolin steamed with Chinese traditional medicine and (one presumes for the kids in the restaurant) fried pangolin. In the corner of one restaurant described by undercover CNN reporter Richard Sutter, a large glass jar filled with rice wine was found.

Inside, with an almost alien-like presence, floated a dead baby pangolin – its tongue poking out slightly between its lips. A waitress, dressed in a gold polka dot dress and a hospitable smile, informed Sutter that whole pangolin could be prepared in around 30 minutes. Minimum price: $1,750. Or, if that wasn’t enough, she offered to have “a live Pangolin brought to your table” and its throat slit while he watched.

Not everyone is so willing to let the plight of the pangolin go by uncontested. At a pangolin sanctuary located in Cuc Phuong National Park, Vietnam, each pangolin held in the park has been rescued from poachers. Yet even in this sanctuary they face life-threatening challenges.

The stress of captivity alone has often proved to be fatal, and the dietary habits, sleeping conditions and other lifestyle information necessary for their health remains unknown. Pangolins, it turns out, aren’t happy travelers. Thai, one of the leaders of the program, remembers seeing pangolins around the same park when he was a kid.

“Now, it would be impossible to find a wild pangolin anywhere nearby. You could sit outside all night – night after night – and never, ever see one,” he said.

Not a surprising story considering the recent – and especially deadly – years of pangolin trafficking. Pangolins are the most frequently encountered mammal in Asia’s illegal wildlife trade – according to CNN, an estimated 8,125 of these shy creatures [were] confiscated in 49 instances of illegal trade across 13 countries.

These arrests, however, only represent around 15 percent of the actual illegal trade, giving the actual number of killed pangolins between 40,625 to 81,250 pangolins in the space of one year.

With the depletion of pangolin populations in Asia, many pangolin hunters turned to the pangolins’ other native habitat, Africa. This turn is uncomfortably familiar; mimicking the rhino trade’s increase in Africa after the Asian rhino populations had been depleted.

And it seems like the trend is catching on. The pangolin trade has only increased rapidly over the last few years, with a strong correlation found between pangolin trafficking and new airplane routes created between Africa and Asia.

So why, even though it is commonly known to be an illegal trade, do so many people hunt and contribute to the pangolin trade? Zainal Abidin, a 54-year-old man who hunted pangolins in his younger years, described how he tracked pangolins in the wild.

He would listen for a “CRRUCK CRRRUCK CRRUK” sound – the sound of their scales brushing against tree branches – and quickly stun them with a beam of light from his flashlight, allowing him to knock the pangolin unconscious by clubbing them on the head. Despite this, he is not unsympathetic to the so-called “plight of the pangolin.”

“Pangolins are interesting animals,” Abidin said. “Pangolins are just like humans; if the pangolin goes extinct it will affect the humans, too.” But it wasn’t solely out of ecological interest that he stopped poaching. Hunting for pangolin is an exhausting business that became increasingly difficult as he grew older, and the threat of a lengthy jail sentence was a deterrent as well.

Ultimately, he ended the practice once a different employment opportunity opened up, and once the lure of making money disappeared, there was no need to hunt pangolins. These shy, gentle and absurd little creatures can be saved by increased anti-poaching efforts and increased awareness, but they will still be hunted when they live in an area that is economically unstable.

Ironically, what ultimately stopped Abidin – and will stop others – from hunting pangolin is the same reason that pangolins are being ordered in restaurants.

Economic prosperity.