The pangolin has a body shape similar to an anteater, can roll into a protective ball like an armadillo, with scales covering it from head to toe resembling a pinecone. It has a pointy snout and tongue (which is longer than its actual body) like an anteater and long claws it uses to dangle from trees like a sloth.
If this is the first time you’re hearing about this weird creature, you’re not the only one. Even Prince William is involved, declaring that “the pangolin runs the risk of becoming extinct before most people have even heard of them”. So what even does this animal do? It lives in hiding all day and comes out at night to eat an estimated 70 million ants (and termites) per year. Its predators are tigers, hyenas, and pythons, but its keratin scales are so strong, and it can curl itself up so tight, that even a tiger can’t break its defensive hold.
So why is this harmless nocturnal insect-eating little freak of nature on the verge of extinction?
It’s the subject of a billion dollar international organized crime trade. Unfortunately, in Asia, it’s not viewed with the same severity as drug trafficking, for example. The penalties are mild and few and far between; there were almost 100 cases of pangolin trafficking in Hong Kong between 2010 and 2015 and only 9 were penalized. In 2013, 6 tons of live pangolins were confiscated in Vietnam, in addition to more than one ton of scales. Unfortunately, the demand for this shy creature is so high that even though international trade of the pangolin (all eight species) was banned in October 2016, in December there were another 3 tons of scales seized in Shanghai. Asia has such a high demand for pangolin that poachers in Africa are exporting to Asia, effectively endangering every species.
Why are pangolins in demand in the first place?
Currently, China (mainland) and Vietnam are responsible for most of the demand. Pangolin scales are considered to have a long list of (scientifically unsubstantiated) healing qualities according to traditional Chinese medicine such as: curing lactation issues, improving blood flow, improving dermatological issues, and even curing cancer. And the meat is considered a culinary delicacy- if ordered in a restaurant, the pangolin is brought to the table alive and it’s throat slit in front of those who ordered it, in order to prove that it’s real and fresh. Considering that the price of a kilo of pangolin meat at a restaurant (in Vietnam of course) can be over $300, and a kilo of scales can go for thousands of dollars on the black market, the less supply there is of pangolin the more demand there is, as it’s seen as a status symbol, or a way to show off wealth.