The pangolin is a mammal not known to many, yet it is the most trafficked animal in the world. Its large Keratin scales – which are hard and sharp – cover its skin help protect it from carnivorous predators such as tigers, lions and leopards. Unfortunately, these scales do not protect the pangolins from greedy human beings.
All eight species of the docile pangolin, which are native to Asia and sub-Saharan Africa, are now categorised as “vulnerable”, “endangered” or “critically endangered” according to the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List of Endangered Species. Four of the species found in Southeast Asia are largely concentrated in Indonesia while the other four can be found in Africa, but all of them are being threatened by the false belief that their scales can heal a multitude of physical diseases and improve one’s sex drive.
The scales are also widely used in the production of crystal methamphetamine which is locally known as "sabu-sabu". To extract the scales from the skin, the animals are sloughed through a torturous boiling process while they are still alive. The scales are believed to contain Tramadol HCL – a substance used in analgesics which can be used as painkiller for chronic illnesses. Apart from the scales, pangolin meat is often prized as a delicacy at banquets in China and Vietnam.
Facts about the pangolins.
In this picture taken on June 13, 2017, shows live pangolins seized by authorities in an anti-smuggling raid in Belawan, North Sumatra, Indonesia. (AFP Photo/Gatha Ginting)
Illegal trading in Southeast Asia
Just last week, it was reported that Indonesian authorities seized more than 100 pangolins – all of them alive – a haul of the critically endangered species that conservationists estimate to be worth about 1.5 million dollars.
Before that, in June, Balawan Navy Base personnel discovered 223 live pangolins, 24 of which were already dead, as well as nine large bags of pangolin scales in a warehouse near Medan, North Sumatra of Indonesia to be smuggled into Malaysia for the production of "sabu-sabu" alone. With the goods being valued at almost 200,000 dollars on the black market, the incident was marked as the biggest illegal wildlife smuggling that was thwarted by the navy.
Outside the region, Ivory Coast officials confiscated over three tonnes of pangolin scales in transit to China in August. This massacre of an estimated 4,000 pangolins has significantly diminished their population.
These seizures are just a few of many more in the past decade. According to estimates from UK researchers and Chinese wildlife enforcement officials, about 10,000 pangolins are smuggled into China from Southeast Asia each year. But why are poachers interested in trading these mammals? This is because prices for pangolins have increased astronomically over the years – they were worth 14 dollars per kilogramme in the 1990s, and today it is priced at an estimate of 600 dollars.
Just in 2016 alone, more than 31,000 kilogrammes of scales from the nocturnal mammal have been seized across the world, according to the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW).
This undated handout picture released on January 6, 2012, by Palawan Council for Sustainable Development (PCSD) shows local packed pangolin meat after it was seized at Palawan airport, Philippines. (AFP Photo/PCSD)
Authorities have tried to put a stop to the international pangolin black market. Inter-country trading of the animal was officially banned in September last year whereby representatives from more than 100 countries have agreed to ban worldwide trade in pangolins. However, the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES), does not assure the survival of the eight species of pangolins.
Acting Regional Director for Traffic (The Wildlife Trade Monitoring Network) in Southeast Asia, Kanitha Krishnasamy stated in an e-mail correspondence with The ASEAN Post that "more collaborative investigations with national, regional and international law enforcement agencies could shed light onmthe parties that continue to mastermind the trapping and transportation of pangolins outside across the countries borders."
"There should also be closer communication and enforcement/ intelligence sharing between Indonesia and countries that act as transit and destination points for poached pangolins," she added.
The Environmental Impact
Besides the obvious threat of extinction, each pangolin is thought to consume about 70 million ants and termites a year. “This can have a huge impact on the forest ecosystem if pangolins keep getting killed or poached,” explained Mazrul,Project Director at the Animal Projects and Environmental Education (APE) Malaysia, over a phone interview with The ASEAN Post. This is because pangolins act as natural pest control agents and without them, there will be a knock-on effect in which the imbalance of the ecosystem will be affected in the future.
Compared to the dangers facing other endangered animals like elephants or tigers the plight of the pangolin has failed to penetrate public consciousness in Southeast Asia. At this rampant rate of pangolin trade in the region, the animal will be extinct before people can even familiarise themselves with it.