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The pangolin black market is fueled by its scales, not its good looks

Kimberly Adams May 15, 2019
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A baby Sunda pangolin nicknamed 'Sandshrew' is taken out for feeding by Serena Oh, assistant director and head vet of Veterinary Services in Wildlife Reserves Singapore, at the Singapore Zoo on June 30, 2017. Sandshrew was brought to the Wildlife Health and Research Centre on January 16, reportedly found stranded in the Upper Thomson area by a member of the public. Sunda pangolins are listed as critically endangered by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN).
ROSLAN RAHMAN/AFP/Getty Images

If you spend time browsing for cute animal photos on the internet, you may have stumbled across the pangolin. The exotic animal may be adorable, but several species are endangered. That’s because they are heavily trafficked for their scales.

A Temminck’s ground pangolin named Tamuda searches for a meal of ants or termites at a rehabilitation center in Zimbabwe. He was rescued from illegal wildlife traders, who likely would have smuggled his scales to Asia for use in traditional remedies. (Photograph by Brent Stirton / National Geographic)

Last month, the biggest ever seizure of pangolin scales was made in Singapore of 14.2 tons, or an estimated 36,000 pangolins.

June 2019 issue of National Geographic

National Geographic looks at the plight of the pangolin in its June 2019 issue.

Marketplace’s Kimberly Adams spoke to National Geographic senior editor Rachael Bale. Below is an edited transcript of their conversation.

Kimberly Adams: For people who have never seen or heard of a pangolin before, what is so special about them?

Rachael Bale: Pangolins are the world’s only scaly mammal. I like to describe them as a cross between a dinosaur and a golden retriever. There are eight different species. They can weigh anywhere from a couple of pounds to the giant pangolin … German shepherd-sized, but they are the most trafficked mammal in the world.

Adams: Why are they in such high demand?

Bale: Pangolin scales are in demand primarily for traditional Chinese medicine. They’re dried, ground into powder and used to supposedly cure anything from lactation difficulties to arthritis.

Adams: There’s not a ton of economic data on this particular market for pangolin scales and trafficking of pangolins. Why is it so hard to get that information?

Bale: The wildlife trade, in general, is just like any other black market trade. Most of it isn’t recorded. So right now all we can really go off of to understand the scale of it is seizure data — how much police actually intercept — and that’s estimated to maybe be about a quarter of all trade.

At the Tikki Hywood Foundation’s rescue center, in Zimbabwe, each pangolin-like Tamuda, seen here-is assigned a caretaker. The pangolins form close bonds with their humans, who help them learn how to feed on ants and termites. Rescued as a baby, Tamuda was stubborn and impish, his caretaker says. (Photograph by Brent Stirton / National Geographic)

Adams: Some of the behaviors of the pangolin, which I learned about from your article — that they’re nocturnal, they don’t interact much with people — how does that complicate efforts to cut down on poaching?

Bale: Because their main defense is to roll up into a ball, it’s really easy for a poacher just to walk up and grab them. And because they are really hard to find, that means the people who are best positioned to do that are typically hunters who live in rural areas. And the problem is that most of these communities are very poor. There aren’t many resources, and there aren’t many alternative livelihoods to hunting. And so if you catch a pangolin, that could serve as your income for an entire month or longer once you sell it up the supply chain. So what’s really needed to try to crack down on the poaching side of things is for community economic development, for capacity-building on the ground to try to help people find alternative livelihoods that are less destructive to wildlife.

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