Even seasoned anti-wildlife trafficking experts were stunned by the enormous size of the stash.
It’s not as if we needed any more proof that pangolins are being poached into extinction at an extraordinary pace, but here it comes: local authorities in the Malaysian state of Sabah in Borneo have just seized a staggering 30 tons of pangolin parts from local traffickers.
The huge hoard of body parts from the scaly anteaters, which have been dubbed “the world’s most trafficked mammal,” comprised 1,800 boxes of frozen pangolin meat, 572 individual pangolins, already dead and frozen, and 361kg of pangolin scales. In addition, 61 live pangolins, which had been stuffed into cages and the trunk of a car, were also recovered during a raid on a house used by wildlife traffickers.
Even seasoned anti-wildlife trafficking experts were stunned by the enormous size of the stash, whose contents had entailed the killing of thousands of pangolins. Of the eight pangolin species, four are in Asia and four in Africa. They range in size from a couple of kilograms to more than 30 kilograms, depending on the subspecies. All eight subspecies are listed as critically endangered throughout their habitats.
Over the past decade, well over a million pangolins have been poached for their meat and scales. The latter are highly prized as ingredients in traditional Chinese medicine despite containing only keratin (the same stuff of which human hair and fingernails are made). Conservationists are warning that unless the trafficking in pangolins can be stopped soon, the secretive nocturnal mammals will be wiped out within a few years, especially in Africa where poaching gangs often operate with impunity.
“For Central African forests in Cameroon, Central African Republic, Equatorial Guinea, Gabon, Democratic Republic of Congo and Republic of Congo, we estimated that at least 400,000 pangolins are hunted annually for meat,” explains Daniel J Ingram, a researcher at University College London who has been studying African pangolins.
“[W]e don’t yet know whether pangolins can withstand these levels of hunting. This is mainly because we don’t yet have reliable pangolin population estimates for any of the species that inhabit Central African forests,” Ingram notes. “But little is known about population sizes, mortality rates, and reproductive potential of African pangolins. Mounting evidence suggests that as the availability of Asian pangolins declines, and international trade flows increase, traders increasingly supply the more abundant and less expensive African pangolins to meet demand.”
We may never learn much more about these reclusive animals in the wild before they are driven extinct by unscrupulous poachers and traffickers. “We know so little about this species, almost everything we’re picking up on camera traps this year as a behaviour is a new thing,” notes Stuart Nixon, an expert at Chester Zoo’s Africa Field Programme. Yet time is running out for the scaly anteaters in Africa. “This species is literally being wiped out, it’s being obliterated across central Africa, there’s no doubt about that,” Nixon stresses.