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What’s the world’s most trafficked mammal?

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We’re all obsessing over the devastating poaching crisis that’s driving elephants and rhinos towards extinction and rightly so. But in the process we tend to overlook some of the smaller, less glamorous species that are being decimated at an even more alarming rate. One example is the pangolin, the most poached and smuggled mammal on the planet.

Pangolins are rather unlikely looking creatures and perhaps it’s their lack of cuteness that explains the very limited attention they tend to receive in the media. Mostly solitary and nocturnal, they appear strangely prehistoric, with a small, pointy snout and face, somewhat beady eyes, a long tail and a body that’s almost entirely covered in large, overlapping scales (they are the only mammal featuring this particular evolutionary adaptation).

With an insectivorous diet consisting almost exclusively of ants and termites, they use their large, sharp front claws to borrow into ant colonies and termite mounts, and a sticky tongue longer than their whole body to extract their prey. Previously thought to be related to sloths, anteaters and armadillos, it now appears that they may be genetically closer to raccoons and giant pandas.

There are eight extant species of pangolin, four in Asia and four in Africa (with the ground pangolin as the sole Southern African representative), which range in length from about 30cm to a metre when mature. All of them are listed as threatened species on the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s (IUCN) Red List of Threatened Species.

The IUCN estimates that as many as a million or more pangolins have been butchered in the past decade, resulting in precipitous population declines in all of the countries where they are found in both Asia and Africa. According to the Tshwane University of Technology’s Professor Ray Jensen, “pangolin poaching in South Africa […] has reached epic proportions” and they are thought to be virtually extinct in parts of the country. At a single offspring per year, their slow reproduction rate doesn’t help their long-term chances of survival.

In Africa, pangolins have traditionally been hunted for ‘bush meat’ and muti (in South Africa, for instance, the scales are believed by some to ward off negative energy and evil spirits), while habitat destruction has affected them hugely throughout their range (for example through deforestation and the establishment of vast palm oil plantations in South East Asia). But in recent years, a massively growing illegal trade to Asia, especially China and Vietnam, has been a major driving force behind the slaughter.

There, ground up pangolin scales are believed to be imbued with medicinal properties, including the capacity to cure asthma, cancer, psoriasis and allergies, potency as an aphrodisiac, a promoter of blood circulation and as a stimulant for lactation in breast-feeding women. In addition, pangolin meat is considered a luxury delicacy that is thought to nourish the kidneys.

Pangolins are trafficked whole (sometimes alive) and in parts (especially the scales), even though they are protected by an international trade ban. Shipments measuring several tonnes are not uncommon. In January, for example, Ugandan authorities seized 2 029kg of scales at Entebbe International Airport, while local newspaper reports claimed that a wildlife trader had received official permission to export seven tonnes of scales, valued at US$4.2m (three pangolins must be killed for every kilogramme of scales). In May, a Zimbabwean poacher tried to sell a pangolin on Facebook for US$7 000.

All and all then, things are not looking good for the world’s pangolins and while their plight is gradually receiving a bit more media and celebrity attention, Britain’s Prince William may, sadly, be right when he says that “the pangolin runs the risk of becoming extinct before most people have even heard about them”.

 

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