Pangolins are adorable other-worldly creatures that spend most of their time munching on insects, curled up in trees, and looking apologetic. Unfortunately, they also have the regrettable honor of being the “world’s most trafficked mammal”.
Now, the UK non-profit World Animal Protection and the Wildlife Conservation Research Unit (WildCRU) at the University of Oxford have revealed heart-breaking footage exposing the moment a pangolin is mercilessly slaughtered for body parts to be sold on the black market. The clip, recorded by an undercover researcher on a cell phone, is part of a 2-year investigation examining traditional hunting practices of pangolins in Assam, north-eastern India, published in the open-access journal Nature Conservation.
Pangolins (or “scaly mammalian anteaters”) are the only mammal on Earth entirely wrapped in scales – a biological shield against its natural predators. But it is these scales that make them so vulnerable to poachers, who sell them to traditional medicine practitioners at a premium. Indeed, pangolin scales are so valuable that one catch (aka one individual pangolin) is equivalent to a four-month salary. Of course, there is absolutely no scientifically-valid evidence to suggest these scales have any kind of medicinal benefit.
"Increasing demand driven by traditional Asian medicine is making pangolins a lucrative catch," David Macdonald, a professor at the Department of Zoology at Oxford University, said in a statement.
"It's easy to see why they are being commercially exploited, as scales from just one pangolin can offer a life-changing sum of money for people in these communities, but it's in no way sustainable. Wild pangolin numbers are beginning to plummet."
The researchers conducted interviews with more than 140 local hunters, questioning them about their meat consumption, their hunting practices, and their attitudes towards pangolins. One interviewee described catching a "big" pangolin as "the happiest moment of [his] own life”. Others said it was like "winning the lottery". They remarked that the supply of wild pangolins had noticeably depleted in the past five years, yet appeared unaware of the role they play in illegal trafficking.
But as the footage shows, it is not just the scale but the barbarity of hunting practices that is more than a little problematic. (Warning: the video is on the next page, but it's not for the faint-hearted)
In the video, a single pangolin is seen hiding from its attackers in a hollowed-out tree as they pull on its tail. First, the hunters attempt to hack the tree down using axes. When plan A fails, they proceed to smoke the critter out using fire. The pangolin begins to suffocate and tries to make an escape but is then captured and bagged. It is taken to a hut where it is beaten with a machete until it can barely move. Finally, it is thrown in a cauldron of boiling water, possibly while still alive.
Warning: you might find the video below distressing.
"Suffocated with smoke, beaten and boiled alive – this is a terrifying ordeal and pangolins clearly suffer immensely," said Neil D'Cruze, lead researcher and Global Wildlife Advisor at World Animal Protection.
"This footage shines a spotlight on how truly shocking the practice of hunting pangolins is. Not only is this a major conservation issue – it's a devastating animal welfare concern. If we want to protect pangolins from pain and suffering in the countries they come from, we need to tackle the illegal poaching trade."
There are eight species of pangolin alive today. All eight are at extremely high risk of poaching and listed as vulnerable though to critically endangered on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species.