They are cute, they are bizarre, and they are the most illegally trafficked animal on the planet. However, there’s a chance you’ve never even heard of them.
They’re called pangolins, a family of scaly anteaters that can be found across Africa and Asia that look like a mash-up of an armadillo and an artichoke.
Just last week, a record-breaking haul of African pangolins parts - a whopping 29.8 tonnes - were seized by authorities in Sabah state on the island of Borneo, Malaysia. This makes it the biggest bust ever recorded in Malaysia, a central node in the illegal pangolin trade network.
According to the wildlife trade monitoring network TRAFFIC, the haul included about 1,800 boxes full of frozen African pangolins stuffed inside three refrigerated containers, 572 more frozen whole pangolins in six freezers, 61 live pangolins in cages, and 361 kilograms of pangolin scales. They also discovered two bear paws and carcasses of four flying foxes on the premises.
The bust was made on February 7, after authorities received a tip-off and raided a factory in the city of Sabah and a warehouse in Tamparuli, some 35 kilometers (22 miles) away. At least one person, a 35-year-old local man who worked at the factory, was arrested
“Detecting large volumes of pangolin smuggling is no easy feat and Sabah authorities are congratulated for pursuing and taking down this smuggling operation,” Kanitha Krishnasamy, Director of TRAFFIC in Southeast Asia, said in a statement.
The whole haul has an estimated street value of up to $2 million. Much of this value comes from their high demand in Asia where their dried scales are used in traditional medicines. Keep in mind, the scales have no medicinal value at all, they’re made of keratin – the same stuff your toenails are composed of. Pangolin meat is also eaten as a luxury dish in many different East Asian cultures.
It is estimated that more than 1 million pangolins have been poached from the wild in the past decade alone. As you can no doubt guess, this is terrible for the health of this truly extraordinary family of animals. We are literally eating these animals into extinction. In 2014, all eight pangolin species – four native to Africa, four native to Asia – were listed as threatened with extinction.
But there is hope on the horizon. Pangolins have kept an oddly low-profile outside of East Asia and Africa, but an increasing amount of worldwide attention is being thrown onto the issue. It is World Pangolin Day on February 16 this year, a day dedicated to raising awareness of these fascinating creatures and the plight they suffer at the hands of humans.