Pangs of Pain for Pangolins: The world’s most illegally trafficked animal


Figure 1. ‘The Pangolin Pit’ by Paul Hamilton. Frozen pangolins lie in a pit before being burned after a seizure in Indonesia.

‘The Pangolin Pit’ is the harrowing image of 4,000 defrosting pangolins seized by the authorities in a shipping container in Indonesia (fig. 1). This was one of the largest wildlife seizes on record weighing in at five tonnes. In 2016 Paul Hilton won a Wildlife Photographer of the Year Award, bringing pangolins, again, to the forefront of attention. However, this was not a one off event and wildlife trafficking is worth $20bn-a-year. Despite being protected in many national and international laws pangolins are massively exploited by humans and it is estimated that 1,000,000 pangolins have been snatched from the wild over the past decade.

Pangolins and their threats

Pangolins are nocturnal, pre-historic creatures often referred to as ‘scaly anteaters’ or even a ‘pine cone on legs’. For many years pangolins were a forgotten species, neglected in conservation with little investment. Only recently have pangolins, as they near extinction, come to the forefront of attention. There are eight species of pangolin with four Asian and four African species in the biological family Manidae (fig. 2)(1). Pangolins are the world’s most trafficked animal. Traditionally only the Asian species were targeted, however, as the number of Asian pangolins dwindle the trade in African pangolins is increasing (1), and the value of pangolins in Zimbabwe has increased 25-fold in 5 years (2007-2012) (2). Very little is known about pangolins, but given they only give birth to one young per year and thousands are taken from the wild it is thought that all eight species are in decline.


Figure 2. The spatial distributions of the (a) Asian and (b) African pangolin species (3).

Pangolins have evolved hard scales and roll up into a ball to protect themselves from predators in the wild, such as big cats (fig. 3). However, pangolins are defenseless against humans. Now, humans threaten both African and Asian pangolins through poaching and intensive hunting. Humans exploit pangolins for many reasons including for food, traditional medicine and even for ornaments. The Asian pangolins are traded internationally as the meat is considered a delicacy in Vietnam and China and African pangolins are consumed in Africa as part of the bush meat culture. Pangolin scales (made from keratin like rhino horns) and other body parts are also used in both Africa and Asia as medicines (3). This market is particularly high in China as there are claims pangolins cure cancer. These claims are rejected by science, yet remain popular opinion.


Figure 3. ‘Playing pangolin’ by Lance van de Vyver. A lioness playing with a pangolin.

Studying Pangolins

Studying pangolins is notoriously difficult. Most commonly the method used to detect the presence of a rare and cryptic species is the use of a camera trap, however, for pangolins this doesn’t seem to work (4). Frequently, the camera trap is unable to provide evidence for pangolin presence despite occurrence in the area being known (4). There are stories of researchers using camera traps resulting in thousands of photographs yet only a couple of these are of the elusive pangolin. This is because pangolins are not restricted to trails like large mammals and despite a strong sense of smell do not seem to be tempted by bait. This problem is exacerbated by pangolins being solitary and so most estimates are reliant on interviews with local communities and hunters (4) (fig. 4).


Figure 4. A lone pangolin. Photo by Tristan Dicks.

Conservation to combat pangolin trafficking

With a pangolin being taken from the wild every 5 minutes the outlook for pangolins is bleak. However, recently there have been increased efforts to put obstacles in place for the traffickers, as last ditch attempts to turn things around. These steps try to take control of every aspect of the illegal trade, from laws forbidding trade to cracking down on caught smugglers. In September a meeting in Johannesburg known as COP17 moved up all eight species of pangolin to Appendix I under Cites (the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora) meaning a complete ban on trading pangolins will be in place by 2017. Previously, pangolins were under Appendix II and could be traded with a government permit. However, tightened regulations will result in increased penalties in many countries as well as making it easier to police. The IUCN (International Union for Conservation of Nature) specialist group have set up major schemes to raise awareness for the plight of the pangolin, as well as trying to ensure that local people, with pangolin access, have alternatives to poaching (3).

There are even to be increased methods of detection of pangolins at ports with a $100,000 trial being rolled out by the US Fish and Wildlife Service. The trial in Tanzania plans to use African giant pouched rats (Cricetomys gambianus) to detect the pungent pangolin remains, like sniffer dogs. Molecular tracing of DNA is particularly important to work out which species of pangolin have been captured and killed by poachers (5). It is hoped this technique will help track the pangolins back to the poaching hotspots, which can then be targeted and the main trafficking culprits identified. In addition, in Zimbabwe ¾ of confiscations resulted in maximum jail sentences (2), which is thought to have been the main deterrent stopping trade of the pangolins to China.


There are many organisations working hard to stop the pangolin becoming extinct. The IUCN specialist group’s action plan in 2014 said that cutting the demand was “the single most important activity to address the decline in pangolins” (3), and over the last couple of years awareness and deterrents have increased considerably. However, the number of pangolins and their scales being seized is still high and little information is known about them. Therefore, continued research into the elusive pangolin is needed to prevent them being eaten to extinction.


  1. Heinrich, S., Wittmann, T. A., Prowse, T. A. A., Ross, J. V., Delean, S., Shepherd, C. R. Cassey, P. 2016. Where did all the pangolins go? International CITES trade in pangolin species. Glob. Ecol. Conserv. 8, 241–253.
  2. Shepherd, C. R., Connelly, E., Hywood, L., Cassey, P. 2016. Taking a stand against illegal wildlife trade: the Zimbabwean approach to pangolin conservation. Oryx, 1–6.
  3. Challender, D. W. S., Waterman, C., and Baillie, J. E. M. 2014. Scaling up pangolin conservation. IUCN SSC Pangolin Specialist Group Conservation Action Plan. Zoological Society of London, London, UK.
  4. Newton, P., Van Thai, N., Roberton, S., Bell, D. 2008. Pangolins in peril: Using local hunters’ knowledge to conserve elusive species in Vietnam. Endanger. Species Res. 6, 41–53.
  5. Zhang, H., Miller, M. P., Yang, F., Chan, H. K., Gaubert, P., Ades, G., Fischer, G. A. 2015. Molecular tracing of confiscated pangolin scales for conservation and illegal trade monitoring in Southeast Asia. Glob. Ecol. Conserv. 4, 414–422.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s