On 28 September, 182 nations of the Convention on the International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) agreed to a complete ban on international trade on all pangolin species at a summit in Johannesburg.

Pangolins are thought to be the world’s most traded mammal species. It is estimated that over a million have been illegally traded in the last decade. Giving all pangolin species the strictest possible protection will remove any question about the legality of trade and place greater pressure on nations to impose stricter enforcement and tougher penalties.

What are pangolins?

Pangolins are unique amongst mammals in being covered in overlapping scales. These large scales – accounting for around 20% of their weight – are made of keratin, the same material that forms human fingernails and rhino horn. They are extremely hard and protect pangolins against many animal predators.

All eight species of pangolin are listed as threatened by the IUCN, and two – the Chinese and Sunda pangolin – are considered Critically Endangered and face the highest risk of extinction. The four Asian species of pangolin have been devastated by illegal trade and, as Asian populations have plummeted, intercontinental trade in African pangolin species has been growing to meet continuing demand.

Sunda pangolin. Credit: Dan Challender.

The Sunda pangolin is considered Critically Endangered. Credit: Dan Challender.

Why are they so in demand?

Pangolins are valued for their meat, which is considered a delicacy in China and Vietnam where consumers are willing to pay increasingly high prices for this luxurious food symbolising wealth and status. Their scales are also used in traditional Chinese and Vietnamese medicine.

All eight species of pangolin have long been hunted opportunistically in parts of their range for domestic consumption. However, Asian pangolins – and increasingly African species too – are now being captured specifically for commercial international trade, which is the biggest direct threat to their survival. This shift in demand has been fuelled by rapidly growing economies in China and Vietnam and an associated surge in demand for ‘luxury’ items – including pangolin products.

Today pangolins command big money. While trade in the 1990s and early 2000s focused mainly on scales, today both meat and scales are in high demand from a booming export-focused black market.

FFI staff have documented pangolins being sold at the Thai-Myanmar border for US$300-$400 per animal while at hunter level in central Sumatra, a live adult pangolin sold to a local trader will fetch USD160-185 per kg. In Vietnam, restaurants are reported to charge US$250-$350 per kilo of pangolin, while pangolin scales are reportedly sold for US$600-$1,000 per kilo.

Pangolin mother and baby. Video courtesy of Tikki Hywood Trust and United for Wildlife.

So what happens next?

Speaking about the up-listing of African species to Appendix I of CITES, Rebecca Drury, Senior Technical Specialist for Wildlife Trade at Fauna & Flora International (FFI) said, “This is a hugely positive step for pangolins, but all parties must now take action to enforce the trade ban. This will require strengthening law enforcement efforts and greater investment in reducing demand for pangolin products in consumer countries.”

For its part, FFI is building on its work addressing trade in Sumatran tigers in Kerinci Seblat National Park to also strengthen law enforcement for Sunda pangolins and helmeted hornbills. Trade in Sunda pangolins in particular is very closely linked to the trade in Sumatran tigers, with the same traders often involved.

Supported by a new grant recently secured from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, this work provides an opportunity for FFI to identify and put a stop to illegal wildlife trade syndicates and the ‘kingpin’ traders fuelling wildlife crime. Alongside Sumatran tigers, pangolins and hornbills, a whole host of other species also facing severe pressure from trader-driven poaching will benefit from this work.

This project forms part of a major FFI initiative to tackle illegal wildlife trade, which the organisation recognises as one of today’s most pressing threats to biodiversity.

Globally, FFI’s efforts are concentrated on protecting vulnerable species in their home ranges, building the capacity of young conservation leaders and developing innovative technologies and finance mechanisms to tackle the problem.