One of the world’s most endangered animals is on the verge of extinction in China. Now, smugglers are using old ivory trade routes to move African pangolins out of the continent and into Asia.
Described as a “friendly crocodile", pangolins are the most trafficked mammal you’ve probably never heard of. The creatures are covered in scales made of keratin – the same substance as rhino horns and whale baleen – that are dried and roasted in traditional Chinese medicine as a way to "cure" certain aliments.
Hunting the critter is illegal in China, where species have been hunted to near extinction. African pangolins are still legally hunted for subsistence meat, but new research indicates that's not what they're being used for.
Declines in Asian populations means there's now a demand for African species.
In the first study to investigate how smugglers move the “walking artichokes” out of African forests, researchers say local hunters in Gabon are selling increasing numbers of pangolins to Asian industrial workers throughout the continent.
The team visited communities where pangolins are used for food, as well as markets to see how many are sold and what their prices are. They discovered that prices for giant pangolins have risen more than 45 times the rate of inflation between 2002 and 2014. In Libreville, for example, giant pangolin prices increased 211 percent, while arboreal pangolins rose 73 percent. Inflation, on the other hand, was just 4.6 percent.
They also found people with connections to Asia were more likely to ask for pangolins. Illegally traded pangolins were not detected by law enforcement working on meat trade chains, but they were detected with ivory trading across forest borders.
Lead researcher Katharine Abernethy said in a statement that it’s probably not local subsistence hunters doing the smuggling. "[It’s] likely to be criminal hunting organizations, possibly those who are also trading in ivory in the region, as the demand markets are similar."
But the high international price of scales continues to drive up local costs, and some hunters target them to sell them rather than for home consumption.
In 2016, the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) banned all international trade of African species to restrict wildlife losses. However, as is the case with other illegal trades, sometimes that's not enough.
Across Asia populations, pangolin numbers have declined by about 80 percent in the last two decades.
Not a lot is known about the “world’s most hunted animal”, and its elusive nature makes conservation strategies difficult. Researchers recommend adjusting conservation policies to stop further illegal trade.
"As in the ivory trade, law enforcement and international efforts to save pangolins need to target specialized criminal hunters, rather than putting pressure on the subsistence community,” said Abernethy.