The small, often-overlooked pangolin is being seriously threatened by the illegal trade of both its meat and scales. Unfortunately, business at the black market is booming. Pangolin meat has become somewhat of a status symbol of the wealthy in China and Vietnam and the scales are widely used in East-Asian traditional medicines.
Pangolins are mammals, though they have scales, and are found in the tropical regions of Africa and Asia. When frightened, pangolins curl up and may emit a foul-smelling acid similar to that of a skunk. These animals are often referred to as armored anteaters because of their extremely long and extendable tongues which they use to feast on ants deep inside anthills. Their nocturnal hours and shy habit of nesting high in trees do not get them much attention. This is changing, however, as all eight species are subject to the growing threat of poachers.
Most recently, smugglers have been apprehended in France at the Charles de Gaulle airport, carrying 110 pounds of scales worth $100,000 on their way to Vietnam. In Vietnam, 6.2 tons of frozen pangolin cargo was pulled from an incoming ship from Indonesia.
One reason that the problem of pangolin poaching is so serious is because captive breeding is very difficult and has not yet been successful. This means that, should the wild populations reach dangerous lows, or become wiped out entirely, there will be no undoing the damage. Even if captive breeding programs were developed, the infrequent birthrate of pangolins would not be enough to replace the pangolins in the wild at the rate they are being killed.
Conservationist Lisa Hywood rehabilitates pangolins at her facility in Harare, Zimbabwe for eventual release into the wild. Hywood has a particular fondness for one pangolin she has been raising for 18 months, named Chaminuka, who greets her when she comes home.
It is clear that these are remarkable animals. The only question remaining is whether we will take the initiative to save them.