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World’s most illegally trafficked animal faces extinction

Research indicates that illegal trade in pangolins is driven by demand for their scales for medicinal purposes, despite lack of scientific evidence to prove this

What are they? This is a common question that precedes most conversations about pangolins.  This shy creature, the only mammal covered in scales, is at the risk of extinction, yet most people haven’t heard about it. The protective scales, which account for almost 20 per cent of their body weight, are made of keratin.

Pangolins are intensely hunted for their meat and scales, making them the most illegally trafficked animals in the world.  The scales are a vital element in traditional Chinese medicine, despite the lack of scientific evidence proving their  medicinal value.

However, the belief that the scales cure illnesses such as arthritis, boost male virility and promote breastfeeding has driven the illegal trade of pangolins across the world. 

The International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) also state that the trade involves live animals and pangolin meat, which considered a luxury product in Asia, mostly in China and Vietnam. There are eight pangolin species, four in Asia and four in Africa.

“Pangolins are found throughout much of southeastern and eastern Asia, the Indian subcontinent, and across sub-Saharan Africa. They occupy a diverse array of habitats including tropical forests, grasslands, savannas and deciduous forests,” says Paul Gathitu, spokesperson, Kenya Wildlife Service.

Pauline Verheij, senior programme manager Wildlife Crime, IFAW. Photo/COURTESY

Kenya is home to three  species of African pangolin.

The African white-bellied species inhabit lowland rainforests areas while the giant ground pangolin is found in West Mara Plateau.

The cape or ground pangolin is native to the savannah, rocky slopes and riverbeds in the country with a distribution extending through South Africa and up to Chad. The three species are nocturnal and feed exclusively on ants and termites.

Recent evidence shows that there has been an increase in trade of African pangolins to meet the demand in Asia. A 2017 study led by the University of Sussex indicates that hunting of pangolins in Central Africa forests has increased by 150 per cent over the past four decades,  casuing the prices to increase 5.8 times in African urban markets since the 1990s.

The ant-eating mammals lead solitary lives except when it’s time to mate. They produce only one offspring per year, making it all the more difficult for the species to recover from poaching pressure. .

Their scales act as their defense from predators but cannot protect them from humans. A pangolin will curl itself into a tight ball, which is impenetrable to predators, but makes them easy to be captured by poachers as it remains immobile.

Their slow movement and living in shallow burrows further makes them vulnerable to poaching. The illicit trade has thrived despite existence of national and international prohibitions.

International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW), an international conservation charity, estimates that 1. 2m pangolins were trafficked from 2005 to 2015 globally. Earlier this year, Hong Kong customs intercepted 8.3 tonnes of pangolin scales that represented product of 14,000 animals.

Although, the Convention on International Trade on Endangered Species (Cites), declared a total ban on the trade of all pangolin species in 2016, large consignments of the creature continue to be intercepted.

“This month alone, 8.2 tonnes of pangolin scales have been intercepted in Hong Kong; 1.4 tonnes in Vietnam, a record haul of 29.8 tonnes in Malaysia and in Uganda, which is an extremely worrying trend.

If this level of illegal trade continues, pangolins will become extinct,” says Pauline Verheij, senior program manager wildlife crime, IFAW, which spearheaded efforts to transfer all pangolin species from appendix II to appendix I of Cites thus prohibiting any international trade with pangolin parts.

All pangolin species are at the risk of extinction and are listed under IUCN’s red list of threatened species with the four African species classified as vulnerable. Under the Wildlife Act of Kenya 2013, anyone who commits a crime involving endangered animals or their trophies risks getting a fine of sh. 20 million, life imprisonment or both.

Though overexploitation of pangolins is evident, data to determine their exact numbers and the rate of decline is scarce.

Gathitu says that to protect pangolins in the country, KWS is involved in a mapping exercise in Olderkesi Conservancy near the Masai Mara National Reserve where the highest frequency of pangolin sightings have been reported to determine their numbers, establish a monitoring system, and develop strategies to mitigate the threats against the mammals.

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