As the illegal trade in pangolin scales continues basically unchallenged, South Africa is stepping up to try and tackle it. It has just been announced that there are plans to build a pangolin refuge – or "pangalorium" – to help care for live animals seized by customs, and to undertake vital research to help protect their counterparts still in the wild.
The pangolin has the dubious honor of being the world’s most trafficked mammal. The rare seizure of animals as they are shipped from Africa to East Asia gives just a glimpse of the sheer scale of the trade, and just how many animals are killed to satisfy the demand for the little-known animals' body parts, the scales of which are used in traditional medicine, and the meat eaten as a delicacy.
Just last year, officials in China made the largest ever seizure of pangolin scales when an “empty” shipping container from Africa was found to be hiding 13 tons of pangolin scales. The total number of animals estimated to have been killed for that one shipment alone is thought to be in the region of between 20,000 and 30,000 pangolins. That was just one shipment.
The total amount of seizures last year amounted to 47 tons of scales, working out at roughly 90,000 individuals. With customs only thought to intercept 10 percent of all illegal wildlife trade worldwide, the actual number of pangolins being slaughtered globally is breathtaking to consider.
Because poachers and traffickers have wiped out the majority of the four species native to Asia, they have now turned their attention to Africa, and are rapidly decimating the four native African species to keep up with soaring demand. The trade routes now going between east and southern Africa and South Asia are well established and persist unabated.
As a response to this, there are now plans to build a pangolin rehabilitation center in South Africa where they will care for those animals lucky enough to have been found by officials alive, as well as deploy sniffer dogs that have been trained to home in on the distinctive yet pungent aroma of pangolin scales, which is actually produced by the poor animals to deter predators.
In the last year, vets in Johannesburg have been given eight confiscated pangolins, but unfortunately at least half have died, underscoring the need for better research on how to care for and treat the animals. Their deaths might come as no surprise, however, when you learn that one was doused with bleach, another smeared in pig manure, and a third was drenched in fuel – all in a bid to disguise their smell from border guards.
Officials in South Africa are starting to wise up to this spike in trade. Currently, there are 30 cases of pangolin trafficking going through the courts, and this new center will hopefully help the poor animals further still.