Pangolin trade needs an international response

Pangolins are among the rarest and most curious creatures in the world. Unfortunately, despite clear international laws against their sale, they are also the most commonly hunted and highly trafficked mammal in the world. There has been recent success in catching some of those involved in the illegal pangolin trade, but many feel that stricter action must be taken.

The illegal pangolin trade has been a growing problem for many years. It is estimated that over one million pangolins have been illegally caught and traded since the year 2000. Recently, in Zimbabwe, four people were arrested in possession of a deceased pangolin, estimated to be worth approximately $5,000. The four face a mandatory sentence of nine years in jail for violation of the Parks and Wildlife Act. More recently, customs officers in Dumai, Sumatra, prevented an attempt to smuggle 95 pangolins at once. They also recovered 37.5 kilograms of pangolin scales, thoush the perpetrators escaped custody.

MONG LA, MYANMAR - FEBRUARY 17: A pangolin skin is displayed amongst other exotic and illegal animal parts at a stall on February 17, 2016 in Mong La, Myanmar. Mong La, the capital of Myanmar's Special Region No. 4, is a mostly lawless area where Chinese tourists are able to cross the border for exotic poached animals, gambling, and prostitution. (Photo by Taylor Weidman/Getty Images)
(Photo by Taylor Weidman/Getty Images)

According to IFAW, over 31,000 kg of pangolin scales have been seized this year alone, hinting at the size of the industry. Countries such as China have already joined the stand against the pangolin trade. Many point to Ghana in particular as a common transit route for smuggled pangolin materials. As such, there is increased pressure on Ghana to tighten its laws and fight to save pangolins. Two major seizures of pangolin scales this summer in Malaysia were thought to have been brought through Ghana.

Why are pangolins hunted and traded so much?

African pangolin

There are eight surviving species of pangolin in the world. Four of these live in Asia, the other four in Africa. At first, the pangolin may appear like a bipedal armadillo, but in fact, it’s more closely related to bears than armadillos. It’s also the only mammal in the world to have scales, and these scales are a prime source of the large-scale pangolin trade. Pangolin’s thick scales are made of keratin, the same material in human fingernails and rhino horns. When in danger, the pangolin can roll into a ball where it’s safe even from the jaws of major predators like lions or tigers. However, this defence, while perfect for fending off bites, has a serious weakness. Human poachers can simply pick them up and take them away. As such, hunting pangolins is not always as difficult as conservations would like it to be.

Pangolin trade

Pangolins fetch high prices on international markets for a number of reasons. Their scales are a part of traditional Chinese medicine and are still sought after today as remedies. Others seek the pangolin’s scales for ornaments or even as a part of clothing. In some regions, pangolin meat is even considered something of a delicacy. With their high value as commodities and the apparent ease in hunting them, it’s clear that something needs to be done to protect this beautiful species from humans.

How can people help pangolins?

Unfortunately, pangolins simply do not flourish in captivity. In fact, their lifespan is often drastically shortened upon being taken out of their habitat. Breeding pangolins in captivity has proved almost impossible. They are largely solitary creatures and there are many aspects of their interactions and behaviour that we still don’t understand. This means that human-made enclosures are ultimately not an option in protecting the species. The best way to protect pangolins is to target the trade which profits from the steady destruction of the species. Not only Ghana but all countries which see the smuggling or illegal sale of pangolins, need to take a stand. The pangolin can still be saved, but the time to act is now.