As an animal you may never had heard of before now, let me introduce you to the pangolin. They are known for two distinct characteristics. They are the only mammal with scales, and they are the most highly trafficked endangered animal in the world.
How does a mammal get scales exactly is a question that may have just popped into your head. Well, the pangolin’s skin grows large plates of keratin instead of hair. If you could imagine an artichoke walking around you’d have about the right image. They have long tails that they can wrap around their bodies in a defensive posture when threatened.
In their defensive ball, even a lion eventually gives up. Did I mention their scales also have sharp edges? So now imagine an artichoke made of razor blades. They are insectivores, eating a diet consisting completely of ants and termites. Just like the typical anteater, they have a special tongue to do so.
No matter which of the eight species you consider they have the singular honor to be uniquely the only mammal with scales and also the most highly trafficked endangered species on the planet.
This animal’s only defense is to roll up into a ball. It has no teeth with which to bite away at an attacker. Its claws are specialized for digging through termite mounds. So poachers simply can walk up to one and scoop it up and toss it into a bag.
But why? So-called “traditional medicine” claims the scales have healing properties, and their meat is considered a delicacy. China and Vietnam being the largest destinations for smuggled pangolins, both whole or just their scales.
There is a ray of hope though. China has made the bold move of removing the pangolin from the ‘TCM’ for 2020. The ‘TCM’ is like an encyclopedia of traditional Chinese medicine, a pharmacopeia. This should reduce the demand for these beautiful creatures. China has also upgraded its status as a protected species, which should further curb the demand for this critically endangered animal.
China’s history with the pangolin isn’t that great eliminating 90% of the animal in the wild since the 1990s. They finally got around to banning hunting the animals in the wild in 2007, however, it wasn’t until 2018 they stopped commercial imports of the animal, meaning while the numbers of the animal were dwindling all around them, they were legally bringing in more pangolin from other places in the world.
China has also upgraded its protected status from class two to class one, equaling the giant panda now. Similar to the giant panda, they are rarely successful at breeding in captivity though, so the only effective way to increase their numbers is to stop habitat destruction and a crackdown on illegal poaching.
Is it enough though? It is the right thing to do, but is China’s move going to have any ripple effects across Vietnam (another hotspot for pangolin trafficking) and Africa? Or is it too little too late? The same actions were taken for rhinoceros horn and tiger bones. It is likely too late for those animals. Will it be too late for the pangolin?
Cover photo credit to Tikki Hywood Trust