October 11, 2018 Endangered Species Written by Greentumble
Endangered pangolin
Pangolins are small nocturnal creatures

who quietly roam through forests and savannahs eating termites and ants.  They are solitary and easily frightened. Naturally shy creatures, they are seldom seen. Yet those dealing in the profitable illegal trade for them have been terribly effective in finding them.

Lacking the charisma of the largest or fastest animals of the world, the fact that they are being poached to extinction has gone largely unnoticed by the world. Illegal slaughtering continues to rise and this gentle animals may soon be gone from the face of the earth.

Where do pangolins live and what do they eat?

Pangolins, the most trafficked mammals in the world, are native to Asia and sub-saharan Africa.  Fossils of pangolins have been found from the Eocene Epoch, 35 to 55 million years ago.

There are four species on each continent, believed to be related to dogs, cats and pandas.

Pangolins have long snouts for rooting the sandy earth of savannahs and the soft earth of the woodlands for insects.

A pangolin can get so stressed out outside of its natural environment that it dies.

Interesting facts about pangolins

    • Pangolins are very shy.
    • They can look like little waddling dragons.
    • If you approach a pangolin, it will either hide under a very safe cover or if there is not one, roll into a roly-poly, armored-side out until you finally leave it alone.
    • A pangolin is a loner.
    • But pangolins can learn to trust the trustworthy.
    • They ride on their mother’s backs, no small feat balancing on hard, moving scales, just climbing back up each time they fall off.
    • A pangolin may in time even cuddle with you, curling its long tail and small, hairy belly around you and clinging onto your arm with its paws and claws.
    • If it’s daytime, a pangolin would rather be sleeping.  They are nocturnal by nature.
    • In the wild, a pangolin consumes an average of 70 million ants and termites per night.
    • A pangolin’s tongue starts at its pelvis and can be a foot long.
    • No one knows the natural life expectancy of a pangolin because they are so shy they are hard to find.  And becoming harder to find since they are on the brink of extinction.
    • Asian pangolins have bristles emerging between scales.
    • Pangolins dig very deep burrows for sleeping that contain circular chambers, some so tall that a human could stand up in it once she has crawled inside.
    • Other pangolins sleep in the hollows of trees or logs and some simply make a nest in the forks of trees.
    • Some can even swing from tree to tree with their tails.


The most trafficked animal in the world: What are pangolins poached for?

In 2016, it was estimated that one million pangolins were being killed annually [1].  Although international trade has been largely outlawed since then, the illegal trade is booming.

In 2017, authorities seized 32 tons of pangolin scales and 563 live pangolins in Southeast Asia and China.

According to recent research published by the Society for Conservation Biology, up to 2.7 million pangolins are being killed every year in Central Africa alone [2].

They are poached for the perceived healing benefits of their scales, as well as for the perceived delicacy of their meat.

In fact, every part of a pangolin is marketed today as a consumer good.

      • Restaurants selling pangolin dishes abound in the Vietnamese cities.
      • The skin is served in such dishes as stir-fried pangolin skin with onion and mushroom.
      • And the fetus is eaten as an aphrodisiac.
      • Pangolin scales are sold in plain view in the street markets.
      • And many shops have the occasional gruesome offering of a baby pangolin floating in a jar of liquid.
    • The tongue is dried and carried around in pockets as a good luck charm.

But all of these claims are mostly market-driven false advertising.

What are pangolin scales used for?

In traditional Chinese medicine, the scales are prescribed to treat a variety of conditions. The pangolins are boiled to remove the scales, which are then dried, ground down and roasted.

The Journal of Chinese Medicine prescribes pangolin scales for promoting menstruation and lactation, reducing swelling, draining abscesses and for expelling ‘wind-dampness in the body’, which causes pain associated with rheumatism and arthritis.

When feeling in danger, pangolin curls into the ball

Other less formalized, but now widely-promoted claims are that the scales enhance blood circulation, help respiratory problems (a looming health problem in polluted regions of China), clear the skin and as mentioned above, can even cure cancer.

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.

Traditional Chinese Medicine

While the origin of the myth of the healing ability of the scales is unclear, references have been found for its use as far back as the 1600s [3].  Hunters began capitalizing on pangolin sales when Mao Tse Tung formally promoted Traditional Chinese Medicine in the 1950s.

Traditional Chinese medicine is held out as a compilation of precepts gathered and followed over 2500 years in Asia.  Skeptics decry the compendium of folk practices under the rubric ‘Traditional Chinese Medicine’ wherein good health is perceived as the harmonious interaction of the organs with the rest of the body, as a political manipulation under Mao Tse Tung to legitimize untrained Chinese medical practitioners in the eyes of the western world [4].

In the 1950s, the People’s Republic of China made significant efforts to integrate the alternative treatments of herbal remedies and acupuncture with modern notions of anatomy and pathology. And since then, pharmacological research has focused on validating some of the more effective folklore remedies in use.

The government now promotes a systemized form of Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) in wide use throughout China today, often complementary to western medicine techniques [6].

The Journal of Traditional Chinese Medicine explicitly calls for the use of pangolin scales in treatments [7]. In fact, over 200 Chinese pharmaceutical companies legally manufacture 66 types of traditional Chinese medicine containing pangolin derivatives [8].

There is no pharmacological evidence supporting the effectiveness of pangolin scales for increasing the flow of mother’s milk or boosting the circulatory system.  The thought process for its effectiveness is that since pangolins can dig through soil, their scales can go through vessels [9].

In another step toward the goal of putting TCM on par with western medicine, last year China began requiring governments at the county level and above to set up TCM institutions in publicly funded general hospitals as well as in mother and child care centers [10].

Illegal pangolin trade

Although the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) made international trade of all eight species of pangolin illegal in 2016 [11], this does not require member countries to limit domestic sales.

Accordingly, pangolin scales are available on the open market in China. Traditional Chinese medicine practices are becoming increasingly popular in Europe and the United States. This is not to suggest that these more modern civilizations are knowingly embracing the use of animal parts of endangered species.

Although international trade is illegal in the 183 CITES member countries, illegal trade is booming.

Pangolins are coming closer and closer to extinction as prices and demand are rising.  In 2014, a CNN reporter found pangolin scales selling in street markets in Hanoi, Vietnam for between $600 and $1,000 a kilogram [12]. One year later, the pangolin scales were selling on the black market for over $3,000 a kilogram [13].

Illegal wildlife trade often uses the same networks as arms and drug smugglers.

The profiteers are savvy.  And not surprisingly, the list of serious illnesses pangolin scales can allegedly heal has grown longer than that chronicled in the Journal of Chinese Medicine [14].

Endangered pangolin on the menu…

And now pangolin meat too is being touted as a delicacy.

Unfortunately, the meat has come to be highly regarded as a delicacy in Vietnam, as well as in China.  Pangolin meat, selling at $250-350 per kilo in expensive restaurants, is considered a luxury food in Vietnam and China.

A journalist reported eating at a restaurant in Hanoi where pangolin sold on the menu for $350 a kilo, but it had to be ordered whole, weighing a minimum of 5 kilos, the dish costing at minimum, $1,750 [15].

The bloody ritual is designed to impress business colleagues and friends of the host’s status. Restaurant employees slit the throat of the pangolin at the table, in front of diners, to show authenticity and freshness.  The spilled blood is served with wine as a healing tonic.

“The fact that it is illegal isn’t played down and is even attractive, because it adds this element that you live beyond the law.”

Dan Challender

While pangolin sales are ostensibly illegal in Vietnam, the government turns a blind eye to its commerce.

Save Vietnam Wildlife’s founder Nguyen Van Thain says that he must race to the site of recent confiscations to recover wildlife intercepted from illegal traders before officials sell it back into the black market.  It is Mr. Nguyen’s opinion that Vietnamese simply have not cultivated an awareness of environmental issues, that conservation is a new way of thinking for the general population.

Exporting countries like Indonesia accommodate the same climate.  A smuggler told an underground CNN reporter that he has connections “at every level of the police force in the region [18].”

In truth, the pangolin commerce has become little more a “snake-oil sales” strategy to exploit the vulnerable, by using TCM as an easy vehicle to promote scam cures to those desperately seeking a panacea for an incurable cancer and by creating a lucrative climate for those who want to appear like wealthy bad boys to society.


What is being done to save pangolins?

Pangolins are sometimes shipped live and sometimes shipped frozen.

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 they are captured and shipped for export.  The routes of some of the criminal networks have been identified.

Major exporters are:

      • Indonesia
      • Malaysia
      • Myanmar
      • Vietnam
      • Singapore
      • India
      • Nigeria
      • Cameroon
      • Ghana
      • Uganda
      • Thailand

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.

Other major ports are:

      • Vietnam
      • Hong Kong
      • Thailand
      • Singapore
      • Taiwan
      • Myanmar [19]

This year, the US Agency for International Development prepared a comprehensive field guide for distribution to law enforcement officers at international airports, seaports and land border crossings to help officers to identify pangolins and their likely country of origin [20].

Enforcement officers also troll the internet for advertised sales of exotic animals and respond to reports of social media postings of those foolish enough to advertise their experiences of dining on pangolin.

The social media postings have actually been very effective in provoking public outcry against the offenders and educating a lot of people to what is going on [21].

And of course, there are the courageous who work as undercover agents for both government agencies and those sponsored by wildlife conservation groups [22].  The International Fund for Animal Welfare partners with law enforcers to see that the criminals they have caught are prosecuted.

What happens with rescued pangolins?

Once rescued, live pangolins are in the best-case scenario, taken immediately to rehabilitation centers.

Unfortunately, pangolins tend to die in captivity.  No one knows exactly why.

When they are trafficked alive, they are not fed or given water, so they are dehydrated.  Nor are there enough rehab centers.  In fact, there are only two in Vietnam.  A caretaker at one of them, the Cuc Phuong National Park, reported that forty percent of pangolins die within a day or two of their rescue [23].

Those who work with pangolins say that they need special one-on-one care to walk them into the forest or savannah and let them feed safely for three or four hours at a time.

Pangolin searching for ants.

The Tikki Hywood Trust, a group dedicated to raising awareness, passing legislation and following up on enforcement, also has a program focusing on rehabilitating pangolins. To this end, the employees, carefully chosen friends of the pangolin, known as The Pangolin Men, are trained in everything known about pangolins.  They basically become their best friends and personal physicians [24].

It is illustrative that in developing plans for quarantined sanctuaries for pangolins, one of the factors the author considered integral to the program’s success is insuring the loyalty of the staff [25].

Loyalty and the buy-in of locals neighboring sanctuaries and those familiar with local poaching not only protects the rescued pangolins from being sold back into the black market, but has also proven an effective approach for turning the tide from poachers slaughtering pangolins for money to feed the family to protecting pangolins to save life itself [26].

But this only happens through education.

How can you help pangolins?

Pangolin scales are simply made of keratin, the same substance as human hair and fingernails. If indeed it were proven to have curative powers, it would be a simple matter to procure an alternative keratin source.

Chinese medical authorities have begun spreading the word among their professionals and for a while public service announcements were aired on radio stations in Vietnam.

But greater steps can be taken.

An alternative to pangolin scales should be offered instead in the Journal of Traditional Medicine. China should be pressured into providing an alternative. Both Vietnam and China could easily flood the market with synthetic pangolin scales, thus driving the market price and incentive to smuggle down.
If you engage actively in politics, then here are some steps you can take:

        • Demand better law enforcement in southeast Asia.

CITES has enough credibility now that it should be able to take a step further. Member countries subscribing to international bans should also be pledging to ban domestic sales.  Only public exposure and pressure will make this happen.

        • Educate in any way you can.

Vietnam and other countries need to better understand what is at stake when they dine on endangered species for no better reason than social posterity.  The delicacy of the meat is too subjective a standard to justify poaching pangolins.

If criminal networks can make dining on pangolin a badge of social posterity, perhaps those same people who need to show the world how successful and wealthy they are could be convinced that a more glamorous way is through donating copious amounts of money to sustainable projects. Spend instead on efforts that will help sustain our future.  Maybe even on efforts to save the pangolins.

Good sources for educating are: Save Pangolins, the IUCN Pangolin Specialist Group, and Sundapangolin’s WordPress Blog [27].

        • Support organizations that fight for pangolins.

Donate to Save Pangolins, TRAFFIC: The Wildlife Trade Monitoring Network, Annamiticus, Education for Nature Vietnam, or the Wildlife Conservation Society.

        • Donate your time and skills.

If you have an interest in a particular facet of the effort such as undercover work and prefer to donate to that part of the effort, just make sure that the organization you select is legitimate and that your donation will reach the part of the project you wish it to.

Charity Navigator is a good source to confirm your selection with.


What would happen if pangolins go extinct?

Nighttime in the forest.  A pleasant, damp night.  No humans.  Insects buzzing and chirping.  Night animals fluttering among the trees.  Plaintive mating calls echoing across the miles.

The mini-godzilla crawls out of her magnificent chamber and begins her prowl of the forest floor, overturning rotting tree limbs, burrowing her snout deep into the earth.  She closes her eyes, ears and nostrils to keep other ants out while she feeds [28]. She will ramble through the forest three or four hours, feasting on around 70 million insects.

We don’t know how long pangolins live in the wild – the rate of those surviving in captivity is very low, but one survived for twenty years [29].   We don’t how much territory they cover each night, or what exactly is in their diet.  Perhaps the pangolin picks up other essential nutrients while routing through the soil or in the tree canopies.

And so of course we cannot know the consequences of removing all of the pangolins from their task of consuming more termites a night than most pest control companies exterminate in a day in a busy city.

Ants are the main source of food for pangolin.

What will happen to these ant and termite populations without the pangolin to curb them?

A story that illustrates the gravity of our lack of knowledge is one about army ants, 200 species of which are native to Africa.  Army ants are the ones you read about in nightmarish stories, marching at 100,000 and devouring everything in sight [30].

The inclination would be to wholesale destroy those responsible for these murderous missions, or at least not care if an overpopulation of predators teeming after the extinction of pangolins completely wiped out the army ants, but it has been found that over 300 animal species, from birds to mites, depend on a single species of the army ant for their very survival.

We happen to know anecdotally that the overabundance of ants from the disappearance of pangolins are destroying rubber trees in Sumatra [31], an important export for Indonesia [32].

Obviously, we don’t fund studies for every species of army ant or many if any, of the other organisms and animals in the food webs in Asia or sub-Saharan Africa the pangolins participate in, but a big problem could be looming if our understanding of biological evolution is correct.  When animals who have been around for thirty-five million years are eradicated over 50 years, there is not going to be another species moving in swiftly to take its place.

Accordingly, we do not know the impact.

We do know of a couple significant services on top of insect control, the pangolins provide for our biosphere.  They aerate the soil.  By rooting through the soil with its long snout and turning the soil over, it creates air pockets that help nutrients to decompose and cycle through, enriching the soil fertility for growing vegetation, which then enriches our air quality by absorbing carbon dioxide and furnishing oxygen.

Good, healthy soil also acts as a filter for the rainwater passing through, removing toxins as it distills the water, purifying it.

What will be the impact on the soil of the loss of pangolins?

The loss simply of an old piece of history seems esoteric, but it is sad to be losing a quiet old fellow from long, long ago from the face of the earth.

Especially one who sleeps in the hollows of tree trunks or in large circular chambers under the earth.


[1] http://animals.barcroft.tv/pangolin-men-worlds-most-trafficked-mammal-adrian-steirn
[2] https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/pdf/10.1111/conl.12389
[3] https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/asia_pacific/chinas-push-to-export-traditional-medicine-may-doom-the-magical-pangolin/2018/07/20/8d8c52d4-7ef1-11e8-a63f-7b5d2aba7ac5_story.html
[4] https://sciencebasedmedicine.org/traditional-chinese-medicine-gets-a-boost/
[5] http://www.shen-nong.com/eng/history/modern.html
[6] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pangolin_trade
[7] https://www.journalofchinesemedicine.com/news/pangolin-use-in-traditional-medicine/
[8] Information document Prepared by the IUCN SSC Pangolin Specialist Group for the CONVENTION ON INTERNATIONAL TRADE IN ENDANGERED SPECIES OF WILD FAUNA AND FLORA Seventeenth meeting of the Conference of the Parties Johannesburg (South Africa), 24 September–5 October 2016
[9] https://www.scmp.com/news/hong-kong/health-environment/article/2162999/consider-alternatives-pangolin-scales-traditional
[10] http://china.org.cn/china/2016-12/26/content_39982656.htm
[11] http://www.awf.org/wildlife-conservation/pangolin
[12] http://www.cnn.com/interactive/2014/04/opinion/sutter-change-the-list-pangolin-trafficking/
[13] https://www.thedodo.com/haunting-photos-of-the-black-market-for-an-endangered-species-1118859358.html
[14] https://www.journalofchinesemedicine.com/news/pangolin-use-in-traditional-medicine/
[15] http://www.cnn.com/interactive/2014/04/opinion/sutter-change-the-list-pangolin-trafficking/
[16] https://www.nytimes.com/2015/03/31/science/in-vietnam-rampant-wildlife-smuggling-prompts-little-concern.html
[17] https://www.nytimes.com/2015/03/31/science/in-vietnam-rampant-wildlife-smuggling-prompts-little-concern.html
[18] http://www.cnn.com/interactive/2014/04/opinion/sutter-change-the-list-pangolin-trafficking/
[19] Information document Prepared by the IUCN SSC Pangolin Specialist Group for the CONVENTION ON INTERNATIONAL TRADE IN ENDANGERED SPECIES OF WILD FAUNA AND FLORA Seventeenth meeting of the Conference of the Parties Johannesburg (South Africa), 24 September–5 October 2016
[20] https://annamiticus.com/2018/02/15/usaid-unveils-field-guide-combat-pangolin-trafficking/
[21] http://www.cbcgdf.org/English/NewsShow/5010/5274.html
[22] https://www.ifaw.org/africa/news/bringing-pangolin-traffickers-justice-africa
[23] http://www.cnn.com/interactive/2014/04/opinion/sutter-change-the-list-pangolin-trafficking/
[24] https://africageographic.com/blog/pangolins-pangolin-men/
[25] https://sundapangolin.wordpress.com/2018/04/13/designing-and-building-a-quarantine/
[26] http://www.cnn.com/interactive/2014/04/opinion/sutter-change-the-list-pangolin-trafficking/
[27] https://sundapangolin.wordpress.com/2017/08/20/pangolin-education-program/
[28] https://animals.sandiegozoo.org/animals/tree-pangolin
[29] http://savepangolins.org/what-is-a-pangolin/
[30] https://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/06/05/army-ants-national-geographic-video_n_1571479.html
[31] http://www.cnn.com/interactive/2014/04/opinion/sutter-change-the-list-pangolin-trafficking/
[32] https://www.indonesia-investments.com/business/commodities/rubber/item185?