Illegal Pangolin Trade Threatens Rare Species

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Chinese demand for the pangolin, a scale-covered anteater, is forcing the endangered animals closer to extinction, wildlife organizations announced this week.

Pangolins are disappearing in China and across their ranges in East and Southeast Asia. They have become the most frequently seized mammal in Asia's illegal wildlife trade, as smugglers sell the creatures to meet culinary and medicinal demand.

The pangolin decline comes despite national legislation that bans hunting the species throughout its Southeast Asia range. Meanwhile, the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) prohibits the pangolin trade across borders.

Chris Shepherd, acting director for Southeast Asia for the wildlife trade monitoring network TRAFFIC, said the pangolin plight reflects the difficulty in enforcing the international wildlife convention.

"The ongoing massive-scale trade in these species does highlight a failure of the Convention," Shepherd said. "CITES is a very useful conservation tool, but like any tool, it is only useful when effectively used."

Pangolin researchers gathered earlier this month in Singapore and concluded that increased demand from China has led to "great declines" in pangolin populations across Cambodia, Vietnam, and Laos. Some researchers concluded that pangolins from Indonesia and Malaysia now supply the bulk of East Asian markets. The panel said traders are importing pangolins into China from as far away as Africa, where four of the eight known species of the anteater live.

Pangolins have been a staple of traditional Chinese medicine for thousands of years, but growing human populations and greater wealth across China have increased demand. Pangolin fetuses, scales, and blood are used in medicine, the meat is considered a delicacy, and stuffed pangolins are sold as souvenirs.

The decline in pangolin populations and intensified efforts to curb the illegal trade have led to rising prices for pangolin products - further enticing organized crime rings to smuggle the endangered animals. A kilogram of pangolin scales that earned only 80 yuan (US$10) in the early 1990s would now yield 1,200 yuan ($175) on the black market, according to Zhang Yue, a wildlife trade expert in China's State Forestry Administration.

An estimated 25,000-50,000 wild pangolins lived in China in 2000, according to a national survey. Populations in Guangdong and Hunan provinces have since dropped as low as 10 percent of the 2000 estimate, and populations in Hainan, Henan, and Jiangsu provinces are likely extinct, according to a study led by Li Zhang, the technical director of Conservation International's China program.

Tallies of the creatures are generally unreliable, however, due to their solitary and nocturnal habits. The International Union of Conservation of Nature acknowledges that there is "very little information available on the population status anywhere in the species' range." But the organization concurs that pangolin populations are decreasing.

"Trade surveys and interviews with hunters and traders in many parts of Southeast Asia have indicated that populations of pangolins are in serious decline and in many locations are gone altogether," Shepherd said.

According to data on wildlife seizures, at least 49,662 pangolins have been smuggled from Indonesia since 2002. In Thailand, border officials seized 7,734 pangolins between 2003 and June 2008.

Most governments in the pangolins' range have implemented bans on hunting or trading the animals, and violators face harsh penalties with potential imprisonment. Range countries acknowledge, however, that enforcement is generally weak due to a lack of wildlife management personnel and funding.

Shepherd said that even in countries with strict penalties, violators are rarely punished to the full extent of the law. "Penalties need to serve as a deterrent and until this happens, the trade will continue," he said.

China is a member of CITES, but the country permits some pangolin consumption to respect medicinal traditions. Pangolin scales may be used in clinical treatment and in the manufacturing of patented Chinese medicines. Both uses are permitted only in designated hospitals, not through retail sales.

To control the pangolin influx from Indonesia - where Shepherd said that middlemen regularly establish "buying stations" in villages before shipping the anteaters to China - Indonesian wildlife officials have proposed a legalized trade based on a quota system. The market would be strictly monitored and limited to a period of three to five years.

Gono Semiadi, a biologist at the Indonesia Institute for Sciences, said at a panel during the Singapore conference that a legal market would allow wildlife officials to create a rivalry between legal and illegal traders, enabling officials to better understand trade routes and trafficking data.

Given the high market value for pangolins, continued demand, and difficulty in enforcing wildlife laws in Indonesia, some conservationists are concerned that traders would illegally exceed the legal pangolin exchange quota.

"Managing a regulated trade and preventing illegal trade would prove extremely difficult, especially since the illegal trade network is so well organized," Shepherd said. "The focus should be purely on stopping the illegal trade. Allowing a regulated trade would only open a loophole for laundering of illegally sourced pangolins."

Ben Block is a staff writer with the Worldwatch Institute. He can be reached at bblock@worldwatch.org.

This article is a product of Eye on Earth, Worldwatch Institute's online news service. For permission to reprint Eye on Earth content, please contact Juli Diamond at jdiamond@worldwatch.org.