Poaching Pangolins: An Often Overlooked Trade Pushing The Species Towards Extinction
Pangolins are unique mammals, to say the least. In the wild, they have almost no predators. However, the armor that protects them also makes them vulnerable to the deadliest one – humans. They are usually described as shy creatures that are elusive. However, their meat and scales go for exorbitant prices in the markets of Vietnam and China. Even though it is “officially” illegal.
Pangolins come with a natural defense mechanism. They can curl up and become a ball covered by hard scales of keratin. It looks unappetizing for wild predators. It is also impenetrable. Pangolins are also considered lucky in many cultures. They have been roaming the earth for approximately 80 million years. The mammal has a diet of small insects such as ants and termites.
However, the moment they are curled up, they can be easily carried off. Which makes them sitting ducks for the predator called humans.
The “Forgotten” Pangolins
Keratin is the substance that human hair and rhino horns are made of as well. A popular nickname for the mammal is “walking pinecone”. However, that does not stop it from being extremely desired by parts of Asia and Africa. The assumed benefits are many and varied – medical, a charm for evil spirits, as well as gifting invisibility. Thus, this has led to the pangolin getting the unfortunate moniker of being the mammal that is traded the most on Earth.
In our limited study available of pangolins, they have eight species. They usually only come out at night and are very secretive. However, about one million of them have been killed in the past ten years, an alarming number. It is a far higher number than all the rhinos, elephants, and tigers poached combined.
However, the conservation society has unfortunately not given the mammal much attention. Until 2012, pangolins did not even have their own specific group in IUCN’s annals. They were the only taxonomic mammalian group to have been excluded. Many academicians think of this as being “forgotten.”
The Deadly “Benefits” Of Pangolins
Hanoi, one of the biggest cities in Vietnam, is known for its spicy street food. Noodle soup is a popular delicacy that is very common and delicious. However, a dark secret roams those streets as well. Pangolin meat is also served if you know where to look and if you have the finances for it. The official stance of Vietnam, of course, is that all such activities are illegal and heavily punishable by law.
The restaurants that do engage in such activities reportedly have a fearsome way of serving the mammal as well. On purchasing it, they will present a live pangolin in half an hour. And then kill it by slitting its throat in front of the customer. Apparently, the blood is also a delicacy. They are bought and traded per their weight. And customers have to buy an entire pangolin. The minimum cost is about $1750.
Almost all parts of pangolins are purportedly extremely beneficial delicacies. Their scales can allegedly cure cancer, treat problems of blood circulation, and issues with lactation. The dried-up tongue of the mammal is carried around as a lucky charm. Alarmingly, even pangolin fetuses are alleged to have health benefits and be an aphrodisiac.
The government of Vietnam had decreed legal protection’s highest category for Pangolins. The penalty can be as much as $25000 and up to seven years of time in prison.
For the society in Hanoi, consuming pangolin also doubles as a standard of status because of the exorbitant prices. They also have the assumed healing abilities. Needless to say, none of these beliefs have been proven by science.
The Numbers Involved In Poaching Pangolins
In 2013 August, almost 7 tons were found at a dock in Vietnam’s Haiphong. They were coming from Indonesia. In 2018, in Sumatra, about 14 tons were found. The destination was likely China or Vietnam. Pakistan has reportedly lost over 80% of the country’s pangolin population due to illegal poaching.
Furthermore, rampant corruption among officials makes matters worse. Even for those that are rescued, the involved government seeks to sell them at auctions if they are on the heavy side. However, the people in poor villages that actually try to catch them make very meager amounts.
Undercover reports by journalists reveal experiences of such people, and the poor conditions they live in. They also admit that it is extremely difficult and risky, given the nature of Pangolins. Most of them live in extreme poverty. The average daily earnings for rice farmers in one such area of Indonesia is about $2.
The Fight For Conserving Pangolins Is On
The situation requires extended and sustained efforts if pangolins are to be saved from extinction. Furthermore, it is not just limited to the animals, it needs to work on a societal level.
Regardless, there have been new groups forming who look to raise funds specifically for the mammals. The most popular and possibly one of the oldest is a small group from Vietnam – Carnivore, and Pangolin Conservation Program (CPCP). Their most famous example is ‘Lucky’, who has been in their care since 2006.
Pangolins, however, have an added difficulty. They are very timid creatures and once used to captivity, finds it extremely difficult to survive in the wild. Many times they starve to death after being released because they fail to find food.
Regardless, studies and attempts are continuing and more is desperately needed.
It is estimated that almost 70 million termites and ants are eaten by an individual pangolin in just one year. As such, the lovable creatures provide invaluable service to the ecosystem. Entrapping and monitoring the mammals is a difficult task as well because of how covert the mammal is. However, researchers are stepping up to the cause. Otherwise, the harmless pangolins will be completely wiped out in the face of their only cruel predator.