Pangolins: Shy, Unique, Toothless Mammals Facing Extinction Due to Illegal Trade

Pangolins, the shy and elusive mammals with reptilian appearances, have existed on Earth for about 60 million years.

These unique, toothless creatures feed on ants and termites, using their sticky tongues to pick up food, A-Z Animals reports. They are nocturnal animals that lead solitary lives, coming together only during mating season. Their bodies are covered in scales, which serve as a natural shield from predators. When threatened, they have the ability to quickly roll into a tight ball and use their sharp-scaled tails to defend themselves, reports Save Pangolins. Additionally, pangolins are capable of secreting a pungent odor, similar to that of a skunk.

However, pangolins are currently facing a major crisis.

Pangolins are the most trafficked mammal in the world due to the high demand for their scales and meat in traditional medicine and as a delicacy.

Photo: Adobe Stock / arief budi kusuma/EyeEm
Pangolins are the most trafficked mammal in the world due to the high demand for their scales and meat in traditional medicine and as a delicacy.

According to the African Wildlife Foundation, pangolins are being trafficked by poachers all over the world due to their highly coveted scales, which are used in traditional Chinese medicine. As VOA reports, their illegal trade makes them vulnerable to extinction, with conservation groups warning that they are the most trafficked mammal on Earth. Despite efforts to save them, the pangolin’s situation is only getting worse.

According to The Guardian, an announcement made in June 2020 by China, which removed pangolins from the official list of traditional Chinese medicines, was lauded by conservation groups. A spokesperson for a wildlife charity who spoke to the BBC said the move was seen as a “game changer” for the survival of the species. Nevertheless, the Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA) has raised concerns about the legitimacy of this announcement.

Despite being protected under national and international laws, pangolin poaching and trafficking continue to thrive due to weak law enforcement and corruption.

Photo: Adobe Stock / arief budi kusuma/EyeEm
Despite being protected under national and international laws, pangolin poaching and trafficking continue to thrive due to weak law enforcement and corruption.

Although pangolins have been removed from the latest edition of the pharmacopoeia, as reported by National Geographic, a list of ingredients in traditional Chinese medicine, the Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA) is concerned that this may not result in a total ban on the use of the species. According to the EIA, the inclusion of pangolins in approved patent medicines may continue to legitimize and promote their use. As a result, the agency is calling for clarification on the issue and urging the Chinese government to remove or amend any approved patent medicines containing pangolin from the list.

This is not the first time this has happened.


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Pangolins are often traded illegally across international borders, making it difficult to track and regulate the trade.

Photo: Adobe Stock / Fabian
Pangolins are often traded illegally across international borders, making it difficult to track and regulate the trade.

Despite not being included in the “key ingredients” section of the pharmacopoeia, leopard bone and bear bile are still being listed among the ingredients for patent medicines, which allegedly continues their legal commercial use, Mongabay reports. Chris Hamley, EIA Senior Pangolin Campaigner, says the latest news on the strengthening of domestic pangolin protections in China is a “positive result,” but he adds that “these latest moves [must be] backed up by further action and official announcements,” and the government must ensure that “existing scale stockpiles will be destroyed.”

The pangolin’s plight is further compounded by the fact that it is not only trafficked for its scales but also for its meat, which is considered a delicacy in some countries, reports TRAFFIC INTERNATIONAL. As such, they are declining in numbers and all 8 species of pangolin, including the Chinese Pangolin, Indian Pangolin and Sunda pangolin are ranked as Critically Endangered to Vulnerable on the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List.

There are eight species of pangolins, four in Asia and four in Africa, all of which are threatened with extinction.

Photo: Adobe Stock / Willem Van Zyl
There are eight species of pangolins, four in Asia and four in Africa, all of which are threatened with extinction.

Efforts to save the pangolin are failing due to the demand for their scales and meat, as well as inadequate legal protections, PBS reports. This is despite the pangolin being recognized as one of the most trafficked and endangered mammals on the planet. The species has also been severely impacted by habitat loss and the illegal wildlife trade.

Conservation groups are working to save the pangolin, but their efforts are often met with obstacles. According to Nature, in addition to the ongoing demand for their scales and meat, the pangolin’s elusive nature makes it difficult to study and protect them. Many pangolins are killed by poachers before they can be rescued and rehabilitated, World Animal Protection reports.


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Pangolins are also important for controlling ant and termite populations, which can have a significant impact on agricultural productivity and human health.

Photo: Adobe Stock / petert2
Pangolins are also important for controlling ant and termite populations, which can have a significant impact on agricultural productivity and human health.

To address the problem, governments and conservation groups have taken various measures to protect pangolins. For example, in 2016, the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) banned the trade of pangolins. However, the ban has failed to curb the illegal trade of pangolins, and the species remains the most trafficked mammal on earth.

The illegal trade of pangolins has continued to thrive, driven by the high demand for their meat and scales. According to a report by the IUCN, between 2014 and 2018, over 200,000 pangolins were poached and trafficked worldwide. The number of pangolins being trafficked has increased over the years, making the situation even more critical.

Pangolins are difficult to breed in captivity, and the lack of genetic diversity in captive populations poses a risk to the long-term survival of the species.

Photo: Adobe Stock / mgkuijpers
Pangolins are difficult to breed in captivity, and the lack of genetic diversity in captive populations poses a risk to the long-term survival of the species.

One of the reasons why efforts to save pangolins have failed is the lack of awareness and funding for conservation efforts.Most people are not aware of the plight of pangolins and their role in the ecosystem. As a result, there is little public support for pangolin conservation efforts. Additionally, conservation organizations lack the funding required to carry out effective conservation programs.

Another challenge facing pangolin conservation efforts is corruption. Corruption allows poachers to operate with impunity, and illegal wildlife trade to continue. Poachers can easily bribe government officials to look the other way, and law enforcement agencies are often underfunded and understaffed to deal with the scale of the problem.


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Take the pangolin pledge and save these animals from extinction.

Photo: Adobe Stock / arief budi kusuma/EyeEm
Take the pangolin pledge and save these animals from extinction.

In addition, the demand for pangolins in traditional Chinese medicine continues to drive the illegal trade, National Geographic reports. As well, many Chinese citizens still believe that pangolin scales have medicinal properties. Therefore, the demand for pangolin scales remains high, driving poaching and illegal trade, The Guardian reports.

To save pangolins from extinction, there is a need for a multi-faceted approach that involves governments, conservation organizations, and local communities. Governments need to take a more proactive role in enforcing the ban on the trade of pangolins. This can be done by increasing the penalties for poaching and trafficking, and by providing more resources to law enforcement agencies to combat illegal trade.

Pangolins are ecosystem engineers, as their burrows and foraging activities have a positive impact on soil aeration, plant growth, and nutrient cycling.

Photo: Adobe Stock / 2630ben
Pangolins are ecosystem engineers, as their burrows and foraging activities have a positive impact on soil aeration, plant growth, and nutrient cycling.

Conservation organizations can increase their efforts to raise awareness about the plight of pangolins and their importance in the ecosystem through public education campaigns, social media, and by engaging with local communities. Moreover, there is a need for more funding to support conservation programs aimed at protecting pangolins.

Project Peril, a signature program of Greater Good Charities, is committed to working with the best non-profits to combat the immense poaching problem. This group works with our partners to curb wildlife crime against pangolins by improving monitoring and database organization about pangolin seizures and market demand, conservation efforts, rehabilitation and reintroduction protocols and more.


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Saving pangolins requires a multi-faceted approach that involves reducing demand for pangolin products, improving law enforcement and anti-trafficking efforts, protecting and restoring pangolin habitats, and supporting conservation breeding programs.

Photo: Adobe Stock / arief budi kusuma/EyeEm
Saving pangolins requires a multi-faceted approach that involves reducing demand for pangolin products, improving law enforcement and anti-trafficking efforts, protecting and restoring pangolin habitats, and supporting conservation breeding programs.

Local communities living near pangolin habitats also play a critical role in pangolin conservation efforts. These communities can be engaged through awareness campaigns and by providing them with alternative livelihoods. For instance, ecotourism can be a viable alternative to poaching and can provide local communities with a source of income.

Pangolins are facing a significant threat of extinction due to illegal poaching and trafficking. Despite efforts by governments and conservation organizations to protect pangolins, the illegal trade continues to thrive, and pangolins remain the most trafficked mammal on earth.

To save pangolins from extinction, we need a multi-faceted approach that involves governments, conservation organizations, and local communities. This approach should involve increased enforcement of the ban on the trade of pangolins, more funding for conservation programs, and engagement with local communities.

Let’s work together, to save pangolins from extinction and ensure that this unique and remarkable species continues to thrive in the wild. Sign the pledge and protect the pangolin!

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Matthew Russell is a West Michigan native and with a background in journalism, data analysis, cartography and design thinking. He likes to learn new things and solve old problems whenever possible, and enjoys bicycling, spending time with his daughters, and coffee.
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