Pangolin – an animal that looks like a pine cone

Pangolin is the only mammal species with body covered in scales. Therefore, this animal looks a bit like a walking pine cone. Many people do not know it even exists, yet pangolins have lived on Earth for 65 million years, and one can say they met dinosaurs (and have outlived them). They are nocturnal and solitary animals difficult to be found in the wild. In total, 8 pangolin species are known – 4 species occur in Africa and 4 in Asia. Some of them are small but there are also larger species that can be up to 2 meters long and can weight 35 kg. Pangolins feed on termites and ants using their long sticky tongues. They burrow termite nests with their strong claws, they can swim well and even climb trees to search for ants.

    Pangolins are interesting in more ways – they can walk on hind limbs, mothers carry their young on their tails, they spray smelling fluid from a gland near the anus (similarly to our polecat) as a protection against predators, they sigh, wheeze and swing their tails. In case of serious danger, they curl up and cover their head and belly with the tail. This way they create a virtually impenetrable ball. Their English name “pangolin” comes from a Malaysian word “penggulin” = something that rotates. Strength of scales and contraction of a pangolin’s body is so strong that the “ball” cannot be bitten or torn even by a lion. However, these might be all the means of protection a pangolin has. Pangolins are unlucky as they are quite slow, cannot run fast and rely on their “ball” tactics. Unfortunately, this inventive strategy does not work against humans. A poacher uses a dog that sniffs the pangolin out, he picks the curled animal and simply puts it in a bag.


Extraordinary animal covered in scales
(Source: Education for Nature Vietnam)

    Animals are captured and killed in massive numbers, killed pangolins are put in a hot water and the scales get peeled off. It is interesting that most of seized trafficked packages contain dead frozen bodies already without scales – scales are apparently traded and shipped separately. Price of pangolin scales is between 500-600 USD/kg in wholesale and 800-1200 USD/kg in retail. 
   Scales are used for souvenirs (scales with carvings and pictures), jewelry (necklaces and pendants) or talismans against witches and demons. In some African countries, people believe that if a woman burns a pangolin scale in front of a man’s entrance door, he will fall in love with her. Scales are also burnt on fields to discourage animals or as a ceremony to bring rainfall. In Tibet and Nepal, pangolin scales serve as a material for the ritual Tibetan incense “nagi” used during cleansing rituals Ribo Sangcheo or Lugta. This incense is exported even to European countries. 
    Pangolin skin is used for leather products – for example in USA, special cowboy boots made of pangolin leather can be bought.


Boiled and peeled pangolin
(Source: Save Vietnam’s Wildlife)
How does the pangolin trafficking work?

International research conducted between 2010 and 2015 has revealed new paths of illegal trade that are quite surprising. The biggest part of pangolin trafficking takes place, of course, in Asia – in China, Vietnam, Malaysia and Hong Kong. The source are countries where pangolins live in the wild and where they are illegally poached – in Africa it is mainly Cameroon, Nigeria, Uganda and Sierra Leone, whereas in Asia it is Indonesia, Malaysia and Myanmar.

  In Asian harbors, huge shipments containing several tons of dead pangolins, scales or even live animals are often seized.
   In 2014 in Hong Kong, 2 tons of pangolin scales were found in containers with timber from Uganda and Cameroon. In 2015 in Indonesia, shipment of 5 tons of frozen pangolins heading through Vietnam to China was seized (value of the goods would be 1,800,000 USD on the black market). In the same year in China, 2,674 pangolins without scales were found hidden on a fishing boat, etc. Between 2007 and 2016, 209 big seizures in total were documented. They consisted of:

  • 34,946 kg of scales
  • 11,419 dead pangolins
  • 2,405 live pangolins.
4,000 frozen pangolins seized in Indonesia
(Source: Paul Hilton, http://www.nhm.ac.uk)

    Pangolins have been listed as protected species since 1975 when they were categorized in Appendix II of the CITES international convention. In 2000, zero quotas on trade in Asian species were announced which has slightly helped these species but unfortunately has caused the attention to move to African species, and poaching in Africa has increased. One of the latest positive conservation steps is the reassignment of all the pangolin species into CITES Appendix I, i.e. species directly under the risk of extinction, which took place in 2016 (the proposal was unanimously accepted by all the voting states which is proving that the situation of these animals is really critical). In practice, this reassignment means that international trade in pangolins is banned.

    Some states punish illegal trade in pangolins very strictly. In 2010 in China, a Malaysian man, who had trafficked 2,090 frozen pangolins and 1,800 kg of scales, was sentenced to life imprisonment. Other accomplices were sentenced to 5-10 years in prison. Unfortunately, moderate punishments are more usual (for instance in Malaysia, an offender committing a similar crime was sentenced to just 1 day in prison and to 30,000 USD fine). Such punishments only reassure offenders that they are not under a substantial risk, and thus the illegal trade is increasing…

Seizure of pangolins
(Source: Save Vietnam’s Wildlife)
How to protect pangolins?

    One could ask why not to breed pangolins in captivity and try to saturate part of the demand by farm breeding, or to release pangolins back to the wild. However, this approach cannot be used. Farm breeding and efforts to saturate the demand are a very risky strategy in case we do not know how extensive the demand for pangolin consumption actually is and whether we do not just enhance further trade. Actually, this would be understood as a support of consumption of pangolins (with the only difference of efforts to restrict it just to goods from accredited farms) and resignation on efforts to raise awareness of general public. Farm breeding is not possible even from both the practical and economic perspective. Due to their unique ecology, breeding of pangolins in captivity is extremely difficult. They need special food (even in zoos it is hard to find ants and termites in sufficient amount), they are highly sensitive to stress, they often suffer from pneumonia and ulcerative diseases (70% of pangolins die in captivity within one year even in optimal breeding conditions) and they have very low reproduction rates (maximum of 1 young a year). The idea of more extensive breeding on farms or in breeding facilities is therefore unrealistic. If somebody claims he is running a farm where he is breeding pangolins, with almost 100% certainty it is a facility laundering animals illegally captured in the wild. 

Injured pangolin after a surgery in the rescue centre in the Cuc Phuong National Park
(Source: Save Vietnam’s Wildlife)

    Breeding of pangolins in captivity is absolutely unique – the only birth in Europe took place in the Leipzig Zoo and virtually no zoo keeps pangolins. This is another reason why majority of people have never seen a live pangolin.

   Pangolins are transported alive and they are killed after being delivered to the final destination so the meat does not get spoiled. Animals are severely parasitised, doped with strong antibiotics and vitamins to survive the transport. Traffickers forcibly feed them huge amounts of gypsum powder or Dioscorea root powder to increase their sales weight. Therefore, it is not surprising that vast majority of pangolins die in a very short time, even though they are found and confiscated by authorities. Chance of them being returned back to the wild is virtually zero. 

    It is very interesting that pangolins are often trafficked from Africa to Asia via transit through Europe (so far, there have been seizures in France, Belgium, Germany, Netherlands and Switzerland). Actually, the Netherlands and Switzerland are considered target countries where pangolins are consumed, as well as the USA. For example, in 2015, a shipment of 700 kg of ivory and 2,000 kg of pangolin scales destined for the Netherlands was seized at the International Airport Entebbe in Uganda. 

Pangolin violently fed gypsum powder by a trafficker to increase its sales weight. The animal in the rescue centre suffers from severe diarrhea and most likely will not survive (Source: Save Vietnam’s Wildlife)

   Currently, pangolins are the most trafficked mammals in the world. In Asia, over 100 kg of pangolin scales or bodies cross the borders illegally every day! Wild populations are decreasing, yet the demand is still increasing. To have a better idea about the extent of the trade in pangolins, we will use comparisons with other widely trafficked animals - every year are poached from the wild::

  • 200 tigers
  • 1 000 rhinos
  • 100 000 pangolins…

According to statistics, more than 1 million pangolins were poached from the wild between 2004 and 2013.



Why are pangolins being poached?

For ages, humans have been fascinated by animals that are somehow extraordinary. If an animal species has something that other species lack, people attribute some magical power to this feature. This is the case of pangolins as well – their unusual body cover has become their curse. Pangolin scales are crushed into powder (traditional Chinese medicine calls it CHUAN SHAN JIA 穿山甲) used in Chinese, Korean and African traditional medicine. Although there has been no research confirming its healing power, people believe that scales heal skin and sexual diseases, support bloodstream and lactation, heal edema, asthma, abscesses, rheumatic pain, arthritis, and alleviate menstrual pain. In China, illegal trade in pangolin scales is permitted to date, however, since 2007, only scales with certificate of their origin and only in special hospitals in form of patented products can be used. In average, this legal consumption makes up around 26,600 kg of scales every year (documented in 2008-2015). Nobody knows the actual extent of the illegal trade but most likely it will be many times higher.


    Besides for the scales, pangolins are hunted also for their meat. In Africa, they belong among the most hunted and consumed animals as so-called bushmeat (meat of wild animals sold on markets). However, a bigger problem is Asia where the demand for pangolins has been increasing and where they are considered a delicacy. Already in the 16th century, pangolin meat was consumed as a strengthening dish. Currently, it is a luxurious food, considered a symbol of high social status and wealth. A host offers his guests a pangolin as a special delicacy by which he expresses his hospitality and shows his wealth at the same time. Pangolins are served baked, in a sauce or steamed, and even unborn embryos are consumed – Chinese cook a special soup with a pangolin embryo floating in it.

    Offers of pangolin scales or meat appear even on the internet and social media. Also in the Czech Republic, it is necessary to observe any possible sale or illegal import and to report any suspicious circumstances to relevant authorities. Pangolin scales are not very noticeable and can easily escape control.

Pangolins can be helped only by a combination of several approaches – by strict protection in the wild, rigorous control and punishment of offenders (poachers, traffickers and consumers) and by raising awareness, especially in Asia where the general public needs to be persuaded not to buy and use products made of pangolins.