The World's Most Trafficked Mammal Just Got New International Protections

By: Jesslyn Shields

This pangolin was released into the wild in 2015 after being seized from poachers in Indonesia Nurphoto/Getty Images
This pangolin was released into the wild in 2015 after being seized from poachers in Indonesia Nurphoto/Getty Images

The pangolin is a humble creature — so humble you might never have heard of it. It may come as a surprise, then, that it's the world's most poached and trafficked mammal — even more than elephants and rhinos, two more high-profile victims of the illegal wildlife trade. Last week, however, this commercial trade of pangolins was banned in an international agreement signed by over 180 countries (including the United States) at the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora in Johannesburg.

Native to Africa and Asia, these armored mammals are shy, slow, toothless, and look like the result of a night of forbidden passion between an armadillo and a pinecone. The thick, rigid scales that cover a pangolin's body are useful when a lion attacks: it rolls up into an impenetrable, scaly ball and waits out the siege. But pangolins rarely go looking for trouble, preferring to shuffle around on their hind legs, hunchbacked and pigeon-toed, sniffing out insect nests to excavate with their long, hard claws and vacuum out with their worm-like tongues.   


Too bad for the pangolin, then, that its scales have long been used in traditional Chinese medicine to cure everything from anxiety to acne (even though they're just made of keratin, just like human fingernails and rhino horns). The meat of the pangolin has also recently become a delicacy in some Asian countries. On top of all that, pangolins are notoriously difficult to breed or even keep alive in captivity, so every one of the $150 pangolin steaks eaten by a Vietnamese businessman, and every cup of dried-pangolin-scale tea sipped to ward off cancer, comes from a wild animal killed and smuggled by poachers.

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Indonesian police display 657 dead and frozen pangolins in Surabaya, East Java; the poached animals were bound for China and Taiwan.
Juni Kriswanto/Getty Images

Up until now, many countries have held bans on killing pangolins, but as Asian species have suffered the steepest population declines, African species are now facing extinction as they're filling the supply gap in the insatiable Asian markets. More than one million animals have been traded over the past 16 years, and in the past three years alone, nearly 20 tons of pangolin scales (from approximately 40,000 animals) have been seized by the U.S. government coming out of Africa.

Although this newly agreed-upon unilateral decision to outlaw the international pangolin trade will probably help with poaching problems in most countries, it's yet to be seen what enforcement will be strong enough in some places to prevent pangolin poaching and smuggling. First steps, though.