Ask most people what a pangolin is, and you’re likely to get a blank stare. Hardly anyone outside of isolated areas in Asia and Africa have ever seen the reclusive, nocturnal, ant- and termite-eating creatures.
Tragically, though, poachers and wildlife traffickers know exactly what a pangolin is – and what it will fetch on the black market.
Like every species of rhino, pangolins are in danger of vanishing from the wild because of keratin, the substance we all have in our fingernails and hair. Like the rhino’s horn, the pangolin’s beautifully intricate, interlocking keratin scales – which make it look something like an armadillo – are prized in China and other parts of Asia for their supposed medicinal qualities. When threatened, pangolins curl into a ball. While their scales are strong enough to protect them from large predators like lions and tigers, this shield does not protect them from people.
Adding to the troubles of these toothless mammals, pangolin meat is considered a luxury delicacy by the sorts of wealthy consumers who view consuming critically endangered wildlife as a sign of status.
As a result, over the past decade, conservation experts estimate that as many as one million pangolins have been poached and trafficked. The International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Species Survival Commission (SSC) Pangolin Specialist Group believes that pangolins are the world’s most trafficked mammals – which is stunning, given the enormous volume of traffic in elephants, rhinos and other beloved species in recent years.
There are eight distinct species of pangolins. Four occur in Asia—one endemic to the Philippines—and four occur in Africa. These incredible creatures occupy forested and semi-forested habitat, with an average adult consuming an estimated 70 million insects annually. Some species are skilled tree climbers. Others dig deep burrows that likely provide habitat for dozens of other native species.
But regardless of where or how they live, they all face extinction in the wild. Under the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species, Sunda and Chinese pangolins are listed as critically endangered, Indian and Philippine pangolins are listed as endangered, and all four African species are listed as vulnerable.
International trade in pangolins has been regulated under the Convention on the International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) since the treaty was first enacted in 1974; all eight pangolin species worldwide are listed under Appendix II of CITES – which requires member nations to take steps to ensure that trade is sustainable and legal.
However in response to escalating trade and concerns about its impact on wild populations, CITES members agreed in 2000 to bar the export of Asian pangolins taken from the wild and traded for commercial purposes. That zero-export quota remains in effect today. As a result, all international commercial trade in Asian pangolins is illegal.
Unfortunately, poaching and trafficking of the four Asian pangolin species continues to occur. And because there are fewer restrictions on African pangolin species, wild populations in Africa are under immense pressure to be the trade substitutes for the declining Asian species. Recently, there has been a dramatic increase in the legal trade of pangolins and seizures of large volumes of illegal shipments of African pangolins and their parts and products en route to Asia.
The United States is determined to do all we can to support the efforts of Bangladesh, India, Nepal, the Philippines, Sri Lanka, Viet Nam, and all African pangolin range countries leading the way to seek the highest level of international protections for pangolins under CITES, Appendix I status, at the upcoming 17th CITES Conference of the Parties (CoP17) – the world’s most important international forum on sustainable wildlife trade. The meeting will take place in Johannesburg, South Africa from September 24 to October 5th.
We’ve been pleased and honored to work with this tremendous consortium to protect pangolins from extinction. Together, we’re working with the international community to develop and implement actions to protect pangolins across their range, and to step up enforcement efforts against poachers and traffickers.
We have mobilized international cooperation to plan critical conservation actions for pangolins, including funding the First Pangolin Range States Meeting in Da Nang, Viet Nam last year, and an Informal Technical Roundtable to discuss pangolin conservation as a side event to the 2015 Congo Basin Forest Partnership (CBFP) meeting in Yaoundé, Cameroon. In collaboration with the Zoological Society of London (ZSL), we launched the MENTOR-PoP (Progress on Pangolins) Fellowship Program, a 15-month academic and field based training program to develop a trans-disciplinary team of young Asian and Central African conservation practitioners to champion the conservation of pangolins in Central Africa.
As head of the U.S. Delegation to CITES CoP17, I’m proud that our nation has made pangolin conservation a significant priority – as it is for the Fish and Wildlife Service’s International Affairs Program and our State Department counterparts.
We must act now to halt commercial trade in all pangolin species and support the transfer of all eight pangolin species from CITES Appendix II to Appendix I – an action that will encourage range states to increase domestic protections for pangolins and make it easier to detect and prosecute poachers and traffickers by eliminating ways to disguise illegal shipments in legal trade. We need to work together with international law enforcement authorities to target, arrest and prosecute the criminals who engage in pangolin trafficking. And we must engage consumers and stigmatize the consumption of pangolin scales and meat.
Time is running short. If we don’t act now, the most trafficked mammals you’ve never heard of will be the ones you’ll never get to see. That can’t be allowed to happen.