Many people will not have even heard of the humble pangolin, nor what it looks like. Even less likely is it that they will know that it is the world’s most poached animal and on the verge of extinction.
News came this week (February, 2019) that a shipment of over 8.2 tonnes of pangolin scales were seized in Hong Kong airport, suspected to be on their way to mainland China. This shipment is one of several that has been found – but likely many more slip through. Reliable estimates of how many pangolins remain in the wild are lacking, although it’s thought that over a million individual pangolins were taken from the wild between 2000 and 2013.
Pangolins have earned the reputation as one of the most illegally trafficked mammal, where their scales are used for medicinal properties in Asia – although there is little evidence for these supposed healing powers. They are believed to have curative properties; however, pangolin scales are made of keratin, the same material that makes human fingernails and hair, and have no proven medicinal value. Pangolin meat is also considered to be a delicacy in some countries, and the scales are also used as decorations for rituals and jewellery. Keratin is also the same substance that makes up rhino horn – another hugely endangered animal that is targeted by Asian markets.
There are eight species of pangolin, four in Asia and four in Africa. Pangolins are also known as scaly anteaters. They’re the only mammals covered in scales, which can protect them from predators. Ironically, it’s these scales that are the driving force behind the illicit pangolin trade, which has put all pangolin species at high risk of extinction.
In order to protect these quiet, calm and gentle animals, spreading the word worldwide about their plight and how their scales have no medicinal value is key – education is always the strongest route – and, of course, never buying products from animals worldwide.
In the words of the wildlife organisation, WildAid, ‘when the buying stops, the killing can too‘.