Endangered pangolins are among the most heavily trafficked wildlife. They are hunted and eaten in many parts of Africa and Asia but are particularly prized in China because their keratin scales are thought to cure a plethora of ailments and enhance sexual prowess. Claims that the protective armor reduces swelling, promotes blood circulation or helps women produce breast-milk are nothing more than nostrums in the scientific community. But, even if they work, conservationists argue that less costly alternatives are available.
Though information on this nocturnal mammal is scarce, pangolins are vital pest controllers in their respective ecosystems, using a heightened sense of smell to find ants and termites. They lack teeth and curl up into a tight ball when threatened, leaving them defenseless to lurking poachers.
Pangolins are also slow breeders, having a gestation period of for 4 to 5 months, and only producing 1 to 3 offspring during a breeding season, depending on the species. Similar to the Giant Panda and many other species of concern, the unique reproductive nature of slow growth and low birth rate limits the pace in which pangolins can increase their population size. The four remaining Asian species are now restricted to Palawan in the southern Philippines, Sumatra and Kalimantan in Indonesia, and parts of Malaysia and India. Conservationists worry that a similar trend will occur among the African species.
Massive harvesting of pangolins in the 1990s decimated the population. It was not until 2002 that The Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) set stricter regulations on the treatment and sale of pangolins. On a broader scale, the organization strives to ensure that “international trade in specimens of wild animals and plants does not threaten their survival.”
Still, poverty, corruption, and inadequate enforcement in the affected areas and weak international cooperation have made it difficult to ensure protection.
In August of 2008, Indonesian police seized 14 tons of frozen Malayan pangolins and arrested more than a dozen smugglers.
Two weeks ago in Mid-September, Indonesian customs officials caught a traveler trying to smuggle 20 cardboard boxes filled with the meat and scales of pangolin through an X-ray machine at Jakarta’s airport to China.
This past Sunday night, on September 25th 2011, authorities in Thailand were reported to have rescued nearly 100 endangered pangolins on route to be sold and eaten outside the country.
Chris Shepherd, acting director for Southeast Asia for the wildlife trade monitoring network TRAFFIC, believes that the laws currently in place are sufficient to force traders out of business and into jails. He argues that the illegal activity “boils down to corruption and enforcement agencies not having the will to act.”
Though wildlife officials continue to investigate and shut down larger companies that are found guilty of facilitating illegal trade, pangolins are still heavily desired by individuals who seek economic prosperity, despite the potential risks.