From Asia to Africa: Will pangolins go extinct in our lifetime?

Several times a month, rangers from Akashinga, a women-only anti-poaching unit meaning ‘the brave one’ in the language of the Shona ethnic group, prepare to raid hunting compounds in the wilderness of Zimbabwe. Together with local police officers, the armed rangers encircle the building then, quickly and quietly, sneak inside and arrest the crew in the middle of the night.

Raids like these have been effective in thwarting poachers and recovering coveted animals and their parts – such as pangolins, elephant tusks and rhino horns – that would otherwise be sold on the black market. Other tactics include sting operations, in which rangers pose as buyers to bait pangolin traders then arrest them.

An elusive, scaly ant-eater found in Africa and Asia, the pangolin is considered the world’s most trafficked mammal. According to the wildlife advocacy group WildAid, up to 200,000 pangolins are estimated to be poached from the wild each year. 

Damien Mander, a military-trained sniper from Australia who founded Akashinga in 2017, says the group has handled over 50 pangolin-related poaching arrests in Zimbabwe since the beginning of last year. 

“The pangolins we intercept are mostly for the local supply [sold for bushmeat and traditional medicine]. We also have a huge Asian community here,” says the soldier-turned-environmental activist, adding that some pangolin scales end up in shipments to Asia where they are purchased for traditional medicine.

“This is a global problem… it is directly related to human exploitation of the natural world. We are all responsible because we all allow it to happen in our countries [in Africa and Asia] on different levels [from illegal poaching to meat consumption].”

Insatiable demand from Asia

There are eight types of pangolins in the world, including the Chinese, Sunda, Indian and Philippines pangolins in Asia, as well as the ground, giant, white-bellied and black-bellied pangolins in Africa. Once abundant, pangolins have been swiftly disappearing since the early 1990s, driven by an increase in buying power and surging demand in Asia.

Typically ground up and consumed with water, pangolin scales are used in traditional Chinese medicine to cure anorexia, sores, skin infections and infertility, as well as to promote lactation. To peel off pangolin scales, poachers beat the animals to death and boil them in hot water – or simply boil them alive.  

The coveted scales are composed of keratin – the same fibrous protein in our hair and nails – and have no medical value. Though an increasing number of Chinese doctors have advocated against the cruel practice and suggested alternative herbs, like cowherb seeds and earthworm, the use of pangolin scales has remained popular, especially in China and Vietnam. 

To protect the species, CITES (the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora)  moved pangolins to its Appendix I, the highest level of protection, in 2017. As such, CITES considers pangolins to be  “threatened with extinction” and prohibits all international commercial trade of the animal among the 183 member countries and regions that have signed the treaty. China and Vietnam are signatories of the treaty, however, black-market trafficking is still rampant. 

Paul Hilton, a photojournalist and independent wildlife crime consultant, has been following illicit trades around the world for years. He blames corruption for enabling the black market to exist. “Corruption in many Southeast Asian countries runs right from the top all the way down,” he says. “[Smugglers] basically pay off the Customs and government officials, so products can move across borders.”

Hong Kong Customs seized 41 tonnes of pangolin scales between 2016 to 2019.

Hilton says that traders in China and Vietnam also told him that “once an animal is moved to CITES’ Appendix I or and II [like the pangolin], they can just charge more for the species because it is more precious.”

Claudia Cheung, a communications assistant of WildAid Hong Kong, says that demand for pangolin scales can fetch up to US$760 (around HK$5,890) per kilogramme. 

She believes the pangolin’s rarity makes it even more attractive to customers and drives up prices. “Buyers become obsessed with the animal, thinking that they must be helpful because they are so expensive. It’s a never-ending cycle.” 

A disappearing species

While local and international census reports on the pangolin population are limited, a number of  studies have found that pangolin numbers have declined by 75 to 90 per cent over the past few decades due to rampant poaching and habitat loss. 

In 2019, the China Biodiversity Conservation and Green Development Group announced the “functional extinction” (when a species is so rare that it can no longer produce the next generation) of the Chinese pangolin, since the group hadn’t found any in the wild since 2017. However, the Chinese Academy of Sciences’ Institute of Zoology has disputed the findings, claiming to have recorded at least 50 pangolin sightings in the wild since 2014.

Anecdotal evidence from poachers also suggests that the pangolins in Asia have become extremely hard to find. 

“The poachers that I talked to along the Mekong River [which runs through several Asian countries such as China, Vietnam and Laos] said there were pangolins everywhere when they were young. But now, they have to walk days just to find one,” says Hilton. 

4,000 defrosting pangolins hidden in a shipping container behind a façade of frozen fish. This was one of the largest seizures of the animals on record, Sumatra, Indonesia. Credit: Paul Hilton/Earth Tree images

Conservationists are worried that the pangolins will see the same fate as their Asian siblings. There is no official quantitative data available on the animals’ population, however, a 2017 survey on 200 local hunters, wildlife vendors, and community leaders in Nigeria provides some insights. When asked about wild pangolins, 70 per cent of participants said that the population had declined due to demand.

According to wildlife trade watchdog TRAFFIC, around 4.7 tonnes of pangolin products from Africa were seized globally in 2014. By September  2019, that number jumped almost 15-fold to at least 67.7 tonnes, with more than 60 per cent of illegal trade linked to Nigeria. 

A 2020 report released by anti-wildlife trafficking foundation Wildlife Justice Commission found that six locales are responsible for 94 per cent of the total pangolin scales seized between 2016 and 2019: Nigeria and the Democratic Republic of Congo account for the majority of poaching; Hong Kong and Singapore, the most frequent transit hubs; and China and Vietnam, the majority of consumers. 

According to the report, Hong Kong Customs seized 41 tonnes of pangolin scales during that same period. However, Hilton believes that’s just the tip of the iceberg. 

Every time we lose a species, we lose an important element of biodiversity that helps our ecosystem function.

Paul Hilton

“Pangolins are often moved with seafood or seafood products. [The smuggler] only has to declare that they are importing seafood – they don’t actually break down what is inside each shipment,” Hilton explains. “Even if [Customs] wants to check more carefully, it’s a huge job. Just think about the logistics and shipping containers coming through Hong Kong.”

He urges the governments in trafficking hubs like Hong Kong and Singapore to set up task forces to investigate wildlife crimes with oversight from an international institution. “We will see more success if we set up a new monitoring system with a coalition of government officials, biologists and experts.”  

But this needs to happen quickly because “some species have no time to wait,” he says. “Every time we lose a species, we lose an important element of biodiversity that helps our ecosystem function.”

A film about the illicit pangolin trade by Paul Hilton.

The silver lining

In the wake of the current COVID-19 pandemic, pangolins have made headlines as a potential intermediate host of the virus. Some scientists have said it’s possible that bats may have transmitted the virus to pangolins, and pangolins to humans. 

The outbreak, which has infected more than 4 million people around the world, led China to ban the trade and consumption of wild animals. The virus has also raised questions about the country’s relationship with exotic species. Chinese netizens, for example, posted on Weibo (China’s version of Facebook): “Please stop eating wild animals” and “This [virus] is revenge from wild animals.”

In Africa, a handful of countries have also sanctioned their wildlife markets. Malawi, located in Southeastern Africa, has banned the consumption of bushmeat; and Gabon, a country in central Africa, has specifically banned the trade and consumption of bats and pangolins. 

However, Mander from Akashinga stresses that the pandemic is not just a matter of wildlife consumption; it is about human exploitation of the natural world. For instance, despite international bans, tens of thousands of elephants are killed every year for their ivory tusks. Meanwhile, shark-finning kills an estimated 100 million sharks per year. 

“There is no better time to highlight the need for change during the biggest crisis of a generation,” he says. “The more animals we [exploit] each year and the more nature we destroy… the more the planet heats up with the climate crisis; we are creating the perfect scenario for viruses to flourish.”

Hilton believes the current situation offers an opportunity for society to take responsibility and work together to better protect the environment. “The whole world is in it [together] now,” he says. “We can’t value financial profits over  nature anymore or it will lead to our ultimate demise.”