The world is finally waking up to the plight of the pangolin, the most trafficked mammal on the planet and – until relatively recently – one of the most neglected.
Today, it is no secret that the world’s one-and-only scaly mammal is under severe threat from illegal wildlife trade, which is driven largely by demand for its meat and scales, predominantly though not exclusively among Asian consumers.
Pangolin populations have undergone a precipitous decline, particularly in Southeast Asia. But when we talk about the losses suffered by these endearing, unassuming anteaters, it’s important to remind ourselves that pangolin is a collective name for eight separate species, all of which are threatened with extinction.
Asia’s four resident species, including the Sunda pangolin, are all categorised as Critically Endangered on the IUCN Red List. It is perhaps no surprise that this quartet has taken the biggest hit, given that the main markets for pangolin meat, scales and other products are in China and Vietnam, but the impact is a global one.
As populations of locally sourced pangolin species have plummeted, the reverberations have increasingly been felt on the opposite side of the world. With local supplies dwindling, the traffickers have turned to the relatively rich pickings to be had in Africa, where the other four pangolin species are found.
Traditionally, Africa’s pangolins have fallen victim to opportunistic poaching mainly for their meat, but also for their scales and other body parts, which are used ceremonially, decoratively and for other cultural practices, but this harvest was rarely, if ever, on a commercial scale, so to speak. That dynamic has changed, however, and there is increasing evidence that the continent’s pangolins are being hoovered up in unprecedented numbers to supply not only the burgeoning Asian market, but also wealthy and privileged African consumers.
A pangolin rescued from the illegal wildlife trade in eastern Liberia. Credit: Josh Kempinski/ Fauna & Flora
The past few years have witnessed seizures of pangolin scales in industrial quantities: a four-tonne shipment in Hong Kong in 2016; almost 18 tonnes at Malaysian airports and seaports in 2017; six tonnes of scales concealed in a cargo of cashew nuts in 2020. In August 2021, an eye-watering 17-tonne haul was intercepted in Nigeria, a notorious hub for wildlife trafficking. The list goes on.
Even a conservative calculation points to literally millions of pangolins being lost in the last decade alone, a level of harvesting that is clearly unsustainable by any measure.
As part of our increased efforts to protect pangolins across our project sites in Africa, Fauna & Flora and our partners are not only gathering crucial data on trade and consumption, but also carrying out biomonitoring activities to detect the presence of these animals and track their movements in the wild, in order to learn more about them.
For the uninitiated, here are a few facts about Africa’s pangolins.
A small tree-climbing pangolin with black face and underparts and an extremely long, muscular tail, the black-bellied or long-tailed pangolin is active by day, feeding mainly on tree ants, but is secretive and not easily spotted. Shyer than other pangolins, it is quick to roll into a tight, protective ball when threatened. Its range extends from Sierra Leone to the Democratic Republic of Congo.
A black-bellied pangolin caught on camera during an arboreal camera-trap survey in Guinea. Credit: Fauna & Flora/Centre Forestier N’Zérékoré
Equally at home in trees or on the ground, this small, mainly nocturnal pangolin is characterised by pale underparts and an abundance of thin scales that call to mind a fir cone. It emerges at night from a self-dug hole and feeds mostly on the forest floor, foraging for termites among the leaf litter. It is found across West and Central Africa, as far east as West Kenya and as far south as Angola.
During the daytime white-bellied pangolins can often be found resting in hollow trees. Credit: Jabruson/NaturePL
This compact, ground-dwelling pangolin is the only one of Africa’s four species found in relatively arid areas of East and Southern Africa, hence one of its alternative names, Cape pangolin, and as far north as Chad and Sudan. It forages very slowly and deliberately, and has a habit of walking on its back legs, using its broad, relatively short tail as a counterweight.
Temminck’s pangolin can tolerate drier savannah or woodland habitats than other African pangolins. Credit: Jen Guyton/NaturePL
The heavyweights of the pangolin world, giant pangolins tip the scales at well over 30 kilos, as much as the average ten-year-old child. Like prehistoric ankylosaurs, giant pangolins can use their powerful tail as a club to defend themselves from predators. They consume up to two litres of insects in a single night and can dig burrows up to 40 metres long.
The hindlegs of a giant pangolin leave prints that resemble those of a small elephant. Credit: Fauna & Flora
All eight of the world’s pangolin species are protected by CITES, on paper at least. But what is CITES and what does it stand for? Shorthand for the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora, CITES is a global treaty designed to safeguard threatened plants and animals by regulating international trade in those species.
Since 2016, pangolins have nominally benefited from the highest level of protection under CITES by virtue of being listed under Appendix I, which permits international trade only in exceptional circumstances. In reality, however, pangolins continue to be illegally traded and their numbers are still in freefall, so further intervention is needed.
Pangolins were high on the agenda at the recent CITES conference, known to its close friends as CoP19. Along with our partners, Fauna & Flora called for more concerted action on the part of pangolin range states and consumer countries alike. Specifically, we wanted to see more effective law enforcement, collaboration among enforcement networks, closer monitoring of stocks and more rigorous reporting to CITES, alongside greater efforts to raise wider awareness about the conservation status of pangolins among local communities, hunters and consumers.
Fauna & Flora stands ready to contribute to these aims through our in-country work and support for government partners. We co-hosted a side-event – Tackling pangolin trafficking in Africa – at CoP19 with the IUCN Pangolin Specialist Group, alongside the governments of Kenya (where Fauna & Flora is currently supporting development of the continent’s first ever National Recovery and Action Plan for pangolins), Gabon and Nigeria.
Arguably the most positive outcome for pangolins at CoP19 was that more robust measures for all species, including a proposal to close domestic pangolin markets, were adopted by consensus.