Great Britain’s Prince William recently noted that, “The pangolin runs the risk of becoming extinct before most people have even heard of them.”
Scientists know little about this elusive animal. All eight species are threatened but are rarely encountered in the wild in any of the 48 African and Asian countries in which they live, which makes it nearly impossible to estimate how many remain. Nor are they often seen in zoos: they are so sensitive that few survive in captivity.
Trade in pangolins dates back centuries. In 1820, King George III of England was presented with an armoured suit made from pangolin scales. More recently, tens of thousands of pangolin skins were sold internationally each year throughout the 1980s and 1990s to feed a fashion craze for pangolin leather shoes and boots. The main consumers were Japan, Mexico, and the USA: 167 000 pangolins were legally exported to the United States from 1980 to 1985.
The leather trade finally stopped when parties to the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) adopted a ‘zero export quota’ in 2000, banning all commercial trade in three wild-caught Asian pangolin species. CITES regulates cross-border wildlife trade under a treaty signed by 181 nations.
Restricting all commercial trade
In June this year, delegates from 31 African and Asian pangolin range countries and the United States sat down for the first time to foster collaboration to conserve pangolins. The meeting, co-hosted in DaNang by the governments of Vietnam and the USA and organised by Humane Society International, convened national wildlife and enforcement agencies, conservation organisations and the world’s top experts. West, Central and Southern African countries came together, wanting to work with Asian countries.
“There was this recognition that together, everyone is more powerful than one country alone taking action – because you need both importing and exporting countries working toward solutions,” says Rosemarie Gnam, who heads the Division of Scientific Affairs for USFWS. “Countries need to stand together on this.”
A science committee chaired by Gnam determined that all eight species are in such peril that they should be up-listed to CITES Appendix 1, its most stringent international trade rule. That would require a vote if the recommendation is put forward at the 2016 CITES meeting. Up-listing to Appendix 1 would bring higher profile conversation with more funding and would restrict all commercial trade. However, it is not as easy as it sounds.
China’s growing thirst for pangolins
Making the trade illegal did little to curtail the Chinese market. “Demand for pangolin has skyrocketed, in tandem with the increasing wealth of some of China’s 1.4 billion citizens. During the 1980s, up to 160 000 pangolins were being ‘harvested’ each year,” says Dan Challender, Co-Chair of the Pangolin Specialist Group for the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN).
Last year, more than six tons of African pangolin scales were seized in Asia. In the first six months of 2015, that figure jumped to eight tons. “In light of this alarming increasing trend we are realising that these seizures represent the tip of the iceberg of a vast smuggling industry,” says Lisa Hywood, CEO and founder of the Tikki Hywood Trust, an animal rescue and conservation facility in Zimbabwe. “People would be horrified if they knew how many of these animals were illegally leaving the African continent,” comments Lisa.
“When you do the math, the numbers are astounding. Six tons of scales (12 000 pounds or 5 443 kilos) would require the slaughter of about 2 000 Temmincks Ground Pangolin (Smutsia temminckii) or 1 000 White-bellied Pangolin (Phataginus tricuspis),” she notes. Lisa calls it ‘a grave situation’.