Pangolins are the most illegally traffic animal in the world. Amid massive new efforts to curb the black market’s appetite for this shy-looking creature, Thai authorities have seized a haul of pangolin scales weighing a total of nearly 3 tonnes (3.3 US tons).
The masses of pangolin scales were stuffed into 34 packages found in an aircraft cargo store at the Thai capital's largest airport in December. The heaps of scales were displayed by Thai customs officials on Thursday after X-rays revealed the contraband contents of the packages. Officials think they originated from the Democratic Republic of Congo, then smuggled through Turkey, and stopped en route to an organized distribution racket in Laos.
Customs Department chief Kulit Sombatsiri told the Bangkok Post that it would have taken at least 6,000 pangolins to gather this many scales. The $20-billion-a-year business for the scales largely comes from China and Vietnam, where customers buy the scales for around £1,100 per kilogram.
There's eight species of pangolin in the world, four in Africa and four in Asia. Although the scales are simply made out of keratin, the small stuff human fingernails and hair is made out of, there’s a long-held belief in southeast Asia that the scales hold some medicinal purpose, such as enhancing sexual performance and even cure cancer. Of course, there’s literally zero peer-reviewed scientific evidence behind this.
For now, Thai police are hoping to trace the money back and find those behind this massive shipping. As for pangolins, the fortunes of this oddly cute beast might be changing.
The Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) unanimously agreed on a total ban on the international trade of all eight species of pangolin late last year. Thanks to this ban, which came into effective 4 January 2017, authorities are now armed with new weapons to tackle the criminals exploiting the animals. Only time will tell if this is enough to beat the billion dollar demand for their scales.