Precious Pangolins

A pangolin, also known as a scaly anteater, is a burrowing mammal found throughout Africa and Asia. This shy and defensive creature spends most of the day feasting on insects using its sticky, 16 inch tongue. When threatened, pangolins will roll into a ball. While this may protect them from animal predators, it has quite the opposite effect on poachers, who’ll just throw them into bags. A pangolin’s claim to fame is its extraordinary scales. Pangolin scales are a much sought-after ingredient in traditional Chinese Medicine, which is why pangolins are one of the world’s most trafficked mammals today.

pangolin 400x267 Precious Pangolins
Ground Pangolin at Madikwe Game Reserve in South Africa. Credit: David Brossard

Made of keratin, like our fingernails, pangolin scales can fetch up to $600/kg. Many believe in the medicinal qualities of these scales. They are used for traditional Chinese medicine to treat skin conditions like acne and psoriasis. These supplements, often marketed as “Armadillo Counter Poison Pills” or as “containing Anteater scales”, are not just available in Chinese stores. You can purchase them from US based herbal remedy websites too. By the click of a mouse, you could be supporting the extinction of pangolins.

All eight pangolin species are threatened with extinction. It’s estimated that over 10,000 pangolins are illegally trafficked every year. Adam Peyman, wildlife expert of the Humane Society International, using data from USFWS, reports that “$1,210 worth of pangolin products were seized by U.S. customs in 2012, with $490 worth of products listed as ‘medicinal’, $500 worth of ‘shoes’ made of pangolin, and $210 worth of ‘scales’ (247 individual scales).”

It’s easy to see why every species of pangolin is listed on Appendix ll of CITES. CITES, the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora, is a treaty to protect endangered plants and animals.Appendix ll of CITES are species that are not critically endangered but may become so unless a species gains more protection. There are four Asian species of pangolin. Two of them are listed as critically endangered. The other two, as endangered.

“We believe that because of rapidly increasing and unsustainable exploitation of pangolins for trade both legal and illegal, coupled with the extreme difficulty in identifying pangolin scales to the individual species level and their slow rate of reproduction (each female gives birth to one pup a year), all eight pangolin species warrant a CITES Appendix I listing, which would effectively prohibit all international commercial trade in pangolins,” says Humane Society International’s wildlife expert, Adam Peyman.

Partnering with the Tikki Hywood Trust in Zimbabwe, the Humane Society International wants to raise awareness of the plight of pangolins. They are encouraging people to support wildlife conservation by pledging to Don’t Buy Wild. In Herbal remedy online stores in the U.S., pangolin products are easily available to be bought. Spread the word and tell others to pledge Don’t buy wild.

“At present, only trade in African species is legal, but customs officials are unlikely to be able to distinguish between legal African scales and illegal Asian scales, as even scales of two individuals of the same species may appear very different in color, shape and size,” says Peyman. “This makes enforcement challenging and creates a loophole through which illicit trade can continue.

Few reports have been carried out on the U.S. consumption of these products. The products sold to the U.S., were likely to be illegally imported, as Chinese Laws prohibit pangolin product exportation. Nevertheless, there is evidence that US buyers use pangolin products. Online discussions on forums and health sites prove people in the U.S. are purchasing these products. Some suppliers are selling hundreds of boxes a year to consumers in the U.S.

Pangolin scales can be found in herbal remedy products often marketed as “Armadillo Counter Poison Pills.” However, it is important that you check the ingredients of most products sold on the internet, prior to buying. So the next time you shop online, think before you buy. Check the ingredients and make sure you’re not funding pangolin extinction.