the world, are native to Asia and sub-saharan Africa. Pangolins have long snouts for rooting the sandy earth of savannahs and softer earth of the woodlands for insects. Amazing pest controllers, a pangolin consumes an average of 70 million ants and termites per night. Naturally shy creatures, they are seldom seen. Yet those dealing in the profitable illegal trade for them have been terribly effective in finding them.
An estimated 100,000 pangolins have been captured and sold in illegal trade every year for the past decade 1.
The pangolin trade is believed to account for twenty percent of all illegal wildlife trade. Restrictions have been placed on their trade since 1975, but in September 2016 recognizing that the species is nearing extinction, the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora banned all commercial trade2. To that end, among other efforts, dogs trained to sniff pangolins are positioned at airports.
Who wants the pangolins? Where do enforcers look?
First, they are positioned at airports near where pangolins are captured and shipped for export. According to an article published in the New York Times in March 2015, two tons of pangolin skins were intercepted in Uganda in January of that year3.
They are also positioned at known importing airports. China is typically looked to as a one of the biggest offender of violations of wildlife trade proscriptions. This is due to its understanding of health and the treatments the culture traditionally follows for healing diseases. Many of its most cherished remedies require parts of exotic animals.
Traditional Chinese medicine is a compilation of precepts gathered and followed over 2500 years in Asia. It does not emphasize anatomical structures such as the kidneys as discrete entities causing diseases as western medical theory does. Instead, traditional concepts emphasize a more holistic approach of the workings of the body. Good health is perceived as the harmonious interaction of the organs with the rest of the body.
In the 1950s, the People’s Republic of China made significant efforts to integrate the alternative treatments of herbal remedies and acupuncture, which focuses on the flow of energy along electrical-impulse meridians of the body, with modern notions of anatomy and pathology. Accordingly, the government promoted a systemized form of Traditional Chinese Medicine in wide use throughout China today4.
Traditional Chinese medicine practices are actually becoming increasingly popular in Europe and the United States as well. Yet that is not to say that these more modern civilizations have knowingly embraced the use of the animal parts of endangered species.
The valuable scales of pangolin
Pangolins are trafficked for the Chinese market primarily for their hard, razor sharp scales, which are ground down for use. In traditional Chinese medicine, the scales are believed to treat a variety of conditions. They are ground down and roasted for such diverse putative purposes as stimulation lactation, draining pus and relieving palsy.
The scales can sell on the black market for over $3,000 a kilogram.
The scales are the toothless pangolin’s only protection. This has not gone unnoticed. Pangolin scales have been used to make armor. And have even been used to simply make coats. The rage in colonial India, a coat made of pangolin scales painted with gold was presented as a gift to King George III. It is on display at the Royal Armouries Museum in Leeds.
Endangered pangolin on the menu
Traditional Chinese medicine also calls out the meat of pangolins as particularly beneficial for the regulation of kidney function. The demand for pangolin meat is not confined to China.
According to Dan Challender, of the International Union for Conservation of Nature, “Vietnam is the next port of call in terms of where to look to figure out what’s going on with wildlife trade 5.”
Unfortunately, the meat has come to be regarded as a delicacy in Vietnam, as well as in China. Pangolin meat, selling at $150 pound in expensive restaurants, is considered a luxury food in Vietnam and China. Cultural forces, especially in Vietnam, with its rising middle class, reinforce its consumption as a status symbol. At one restaurant in Ho Chi Minh City, pangolin is the most expensive item on its menu. Ordering it requires a deposit and a few hours’ notice. The ritual is designed to impress business colleagues and friends of the host’s status. Restaurant employees kill the animal at the table, in front of diners, to show authenticity and freshness.