|The pangolin is one of the most threatened mammals on the planet – with over one million lost within one decade.|
February 23, 2015
Police in Vietnam’s northern Bac Ninh province recently seized 42 live, critically endangered Sunda Pangolins from poachers, fined the culprits, and delivered the animals to forest rangers for safekeeping — at which point those forest rangers proceeded to undo all this valiant action by selling the animals off to local restaurants. They secured almost $12,000 for the illegal meat, leaving the creatures to have their tongues cut out and their scales plucked off.
That’s the fate of poached pangolins, also known as ‘scaly anteaters.’ Although, perhaps surprisingly, many people don’t seem to know what these creatures are, the prehistoric-looking mammals feel the brunt of a trade that makes them the world’s most trafficked mammals on earth, says the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN). Over a million animals have been taken from the wild in a decade, upholding a thriving trade primarily in China and Vietnam, that continues to supply chefs with the animal’s meat.
Armed with our bottomless appetites, humans have converted every feature on this animal into a highly marketable delicacy: The pangolin’s tongue is incorporated into special soups, its blood is drained for drinking, and some animals are preserved whole in alcohol, used to brew a kind of tonic wine. Finally, the scales, which give the animal its almost mythical body armour, are sold on the black market for traditional medicine, or as jewellery. The pangolin’s body parts, which can fetch hundreds of dollars per kilo, are believed to have a range of (scientifically unproven) qualities, from nourishing the kidneys, treating psoriasis, and, of course, working as an aphrodisiac. Last year, the IUCN issued a report on pangolin poaching and found that as a result of this enthusiastic appetite, the creature “is literally being eaten out of existence.”
That brings us back to the Vietnamese officials who capitalised on that appetite instead of trying to plug it. According to Thanhnien News, the head of Bac Ninh’s forest management department vouched for the forest rangers by saying that the animals were too weak to be rescued anyway. Besides, the official reasoned, limited trade of pangolins is allowed in Vietnam — although it turns out that he was citing an old law that changed over a year ago. Until recently, it was legal for registered traders or government authorities to auction off some pangolins, like those seized from poachers. But that changed in November 2013, when a new law was ushered in to completely rule out the hunting, trade, and consumption of any of Asia’s four pangolin species. Now they’re afforded the highest degree of protection, says Dan Challender, co-chair on the IUCN’s Pangolin Specialist Group, which addresses threats to the world’s eight pangolin species. It’s not totally clear whether negligence or cash motivated the forest rangers’ trade. “It’s difficult to say without having specific details whether the forest rangers just weren’t aware of the new law,” Challender says. “But one can make the assumption that rangers were likely aware of the new legislation, so this could well be corruption.” Nguyen Thi Phuong Dung, deputy director of a conservation organisation called Education for Nature-Vietnam, spoke out against the officials’ activity, saying to Thanhnien News, “Any violations regarding the animals should receive criminal punishment. We also can’t treat them simply as evidence of a crime and then trade them.” The group expressed concern that money changing hands via such official channels would form a link between the authorities and poachers that could encourage the trade. As is evident in the $12,000 price tag on those 42 pangolins, they aren’t an affordable delicacy for most. In fact, the animals’ meat, blood, and other products are enjoyed only by the wealthy, as an edible token of status and success. Challender has observed moneyed restaurant patrons paying up to $700 for just two kilograms of the meat. “In some restaurants it can be the most expensive meat on the menu.” Dining on the animal can also be a theatricaland deeply morbid — affair. “I’ve seen it happen. They will club the pangolin until it’s unconscious and then they they will cut its throat with some scissors,” Challender recounts. For wealthy patrons wanting to display their status, buying this expensive wild meat is a sure way to do it, he says.
Two of the Asian pangolin species, the Sunda and Chinese Pangolins, are now critically endangered thanks to the high status of their meat. So with fewer of those available to poach, traders are increasingly turning to Africa, where four species reside. Just this week, customs officials in Hong Kong uncovered a one ton shipment of pangolin scales which had arrived from Kenya, the second major African shipment that’s been uncovered there in five months. “There needs to be a focus on Africa just as much as there is on Asia,” Challender says
But there’s also room for hope. Last year, the IUCN Pangolin Specialist Group launched the first ever global conservation plan for these animals, Mr. Challender says. It puts a spotlight on the pangolin’s plight, with core aims of reducing consumer demand and protecting pangolin strongholds in the wild.