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A Smuggler’s Fridge Is No Place for the Weird and Wonderful Pangolin

The world must crack down on the pangolin trade or risk losing these animals for good.

Don’t you hate it when a friend asks you for a favor and you say fine and then all of a sudden you have 657 armored mammals wrapped up in your deep freeze?

This is basically the story a man gave Indonesian police last month when they raided his house and found hundreds of poached pangolins on ice. “Uh, those aren’t my critically endangered mammals.”

How did the authorities nab the illegal wildlife trafficker? It was actually pretty easy. His neighbors turned him in for having a suspicious number of freezers.

OK, so maybe you’ve never agreed to store an internationally protected animal next to your frozen peas. But I assure you, this incident is in no way unique, because pangolins—yes, pangolins—are the most illegally traded mammal in the world.

Not elephants. Not rhinos. Not tigers.

Pangolins.

For those of you who may not know, the pangolin is a small mammal native to Africa and Asia with the face of an armadillo and the skin of a pineapple. Covered in scales, pangolins can roll up into a tight ball like a hedgehog. The creatures also have fused jaws and no teeth, subsisting entirely on insects slurped up with an impossibly long and sticky tongue. In some species, the tongue is so long it actually starts deep in the animal’s chest cavity and can extend farther than the pangolin’s entire body is long—more than three feet!

One more thing about this fascinating animal: It walks on its hind legs, sort of like a goofy T. rex.

Unfortunately for pangolins, there’s a huge demand for the animal’s flesh in China and Africa. The pangolin’s scales are also considered valuable, because they are rumored (read: not proven) to cure all sorts of ailments and diseases. Oh, and soup made from pangolin fetuses is especially prized for its presumed ability to enhance virility. (To the men of the world: Please, just stop with this nonsense.)

Anyway, experts estimate that more than a million pangolins have been taken from the wild over the past decade. Some are hunted with dogs, others are trapped, but in the end, most pangolins are killed and cut up before sale, since the animals don’t usually live long in captivity.

No one knows exactly how many pangolins remain, but scientists worry that at the current poaching rate (about 10,000 killed each year), they could be extinct soon. Pangolins are pretty slow reproducers, so they’re having a hard time naturally rebounding. The Asian pangolin species can pop out up to three offspring at a time, but the babies, called pangopups, require at least three months of nursing and then another year of maternal care. The African species usually give birth to only one pangopup, which requires a similar amount of rearing. And because they don’t do well in captivity, breeding programs are pretty much off the table as a means of recovery. 

Heartbreaking, I know. But there is hope. This very month, members of the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) met in Hawaii for the World Conservation Congress to discuss the future of the world’s endangered species, including pangolins.

An overwhelming number of IUCN members—heads of state, business leaders, representatives of indigenous groups, and scientists from all over the world—passed a motion to support higher protections for pangolins as well as a motion to ban the legal international commercial trade in pangolin parts at the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wildlife Fauna and Flora (CITES), which starts September 24 in Johannesburg. A two-thirds majority vote of the 183 CITES countries will be required to uplist pangolins from Appendix II to Appendix I—the highest level of protection available under CITES.  

“I’m optimistic about the vote at CITES,” says Elly Pepper, deputy director of NRDC’s wildlife trade initiative. “This proposal has an overwhelming amount of support from the range states—the countries where pangolins actually live. That’s really important because it will be largely up to those countries to enforce such a ban by preventing pangolins and parts from leaving their borders.”

Victory won’t be a shoo-in. Asian countries that want the pangolin trade to continue are expected to actively oppose the plan. “They are very good lobbyists,” says Pepper. “And they will stop at nothing to win.” But you can bet NRDC will have troops on the ground in Johannesburg to aggressively advocate for this proposal and convince detractors that an Appendix I listing is necessary to protect the species from guys with a suspicious number of freezers.

For the sake of pangolins, let’s hope science prevails. Because these scaly roly-polies are too special to lose, and time is running out.

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