Editor’s note: The images below may be upsetting to some readers.
When photographer Paul Hilton arrived at a clearing in Sumatra, Indonesia, last year, there was just a backhoe, a couple of law enforcement officials and an open pit about to be set on fire ― the final act of a major wildlife crime bust.
The day before, Hilton had been in a warehouse in the city of Medan when police raided the building on a tip that a seafood trading company was trafficking in smuggled creatures hunted for their valuable body parts. He photographed the raid and the lucky critters that made it out alive. Though he found it heartbreaking, “visually, it wasn’t that impactful,” Hilton said.
But it was the pit a few miles away that made it hard to lift his camera. The warehouse had been hiding boxes, crates and shipping containers full of frozen pangolins, the world’s most trafficked animal, destined for consumption abroad.
The trench Hilton strode up to that day was a mass grave, filled with nearly 4,000 pangolins that the authorities had seized from the seafood company.
“I stood there for a while and I couldn’t even take a photograph,” said Hilton, who was on assignment for the Wildlife Conservation Society at the time. “It was the early morning, a very stark landscape with just a few police officers. And I’m just standing there looking into this pit thinking, ‘What an absolute disgrace.’”
One of Hilton’s photographs from that day, above, won first prize in the single image category at the Wildlife Photographer of the Year awards last month. It’s a stark and depressing shot that reflects the dire struggle pangolins face as humans hunt them to extinction.
Pangolin scales are highly prized in traditional medicine and the meat is considered a delicacy in some parts of Vietnam and China. Like rhino horn, the scales are made of keratin, the same material as human fingernails, and hold no medicinal value whatsoever.
But demand for pangolin parts is staggering, and all eight species across southeast Asia and Africa are threatened by poaching. More than 10,000 of the animals are estimated to be killed every year. Hilton said in some areas the scales can sell for up to $600 a kilogram.
The pangolins Hilton photographed that day were worth an estimated $1.8 million.
The Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora, or CITES, recently banned the trade of pangolins and their parts in an effort to squelch demand.
Hilton’s photographs from the raid and the burn pit show just how vast the wildlife trade can be, and how easy it is for one species ― humans ― to eat one of the world’s mammals to extinction.
Take a look below.