The placid animals have been around for 80 million years, yet they are now critically endangered in the wild.
Pangolins enjoy the dubious distinction of being the world’s “most trafficked mammals,” and they have been having it pretty hard for years.
Highly sought for their scales that are used as ingredients in Chinese medicine and for their meat in exotic dishes across much of Southeast Asia, the placid animals, which feed on ants and other insects, are being poached at alarming rates everywhere they live. Pangolins have been around for 80 million years, yet they are now critically endangered in the wild owing to human interference. Over the past decade alone as many as 1 million of the slow-breeding animals have been seized from the wild in Africa and Asia.
The mammals, which resemble animated pinecones with elongated snouts and long tails, sport hundreds of spikey scales, which they use for self-defense by rolling up into a ball at the sight of danger, much as hedgehogs do. It is these very scales that make them so enticing to practitioners of traditional medicine who attribute curative properties to them. Pangolins’ name derives from the Malay word “peng-guling,” which means “roller” and refers to the animals’ defense habit.
Recently, in a move welcomed by conservationists, CITES placed a comprehensive ban on the sale of all eight subspecies of pangolin, the four Asian pangolins (the Indian, Philippine, Sunda, and Chinese) and the four African ones (giant, tree, ground, and long-tailed). Yet that has not stopped people from continuing to traffic in the animals. Most poached pangolins are destined for Vietnam and China, two countries that are the ground zero for the global pangolin trade.
Although the consumption of pangolins has been illegal in the country since 1989, many Chinese citizens continue to flout the law with wanton abandon. Last year, a woman, dubbed the Pangolin Princess, was arrested in Shenzhen after she posted pictures of herself feasting on pangolins to social media. Not only was the young woman not ashamed of dining on an endangered species; she was clearly proud of it.
According to estimates, the population of Chinese pangolins stood at somewhere between 50,000 and 100,000 in 2003. That figure was a drop of around 94% since the 1960s. What with the numbers of the country’s pangolins thinned, Chinese citizens have turned elsewhere to fuel their demand for pangolin scales and meat.
The animals now have a champion in Hong Kong movie star and martial artist Jackie Chan, who stars in a short educational video entitled “Kung Fu Pangolin” and produced by the conservationist groups WildAid and Nature Conservancy. In it Chan trains three pangolins how to defend themselves with kicks and punches against rapacious poachers and wildlife smugglers.
The video is lighthearted, in the vein of Chan’s celluloid oeuvre, yet it carries an important message: It’s consumer demand that is fueling the mass killing of pangolins from Asia to Africa, and if we stop maintaining that demand, pangolins will be a whole lot safer in the wild. “Please never buy pangolin meat or scales,” Chan explains. “When the buying stops, the killing can, too.”
For the sake of pangolins, here is hoping more and more people will heed these wise words, both within China and outside it.