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A pangolin is released into the wild by Natural Resources Conservation Agency (BKSDA) officials at a conservation forest in Sibolangit, North Sumatra, Indonesia, Friday, March 1, 2013. The anteater is part of 128 pangolins confiscated by customs officers from a smuggler's boat off Sumatra island as it was heading for Malaysia last week. (AP Photo/Jefri Tarigan
AP Photo/Jefri Tarigan
This little guy was about to be smuggled to China when Indonesian officials seized the shipment in March 2013.
WHAT IS THAT?

Demand for traditional Chinese medicine is killing off the world’s quirkiest animal

By Gwynn Guilford in Africa

They may look like a cuddly cross between an armadillo and an artichoke, but pangolins are tougher than they seem. The animal’s armor of rigid keratin scales is the only of its kind in the entire animal kingdom. Another improbable pangolin adaptation—that they can furl their bodies into tight, dense balls—allows them protect themselves from predators—or at least the non-human kind.

That elephants and rhinoceroses are slaughtered as part of the world’s $19 billion illegal wildlife trade is well-known. But pangolin poaching is just as epidemic. The animal is now the most frequently seized mammal in Asia’s black-market wildlife trade, according to Worldwatch Institute, a non-profit organization. Another conservation group estimates that more than 200,000 pangolins were killed between 2011 and 2013.

Where are all these dead pangolins going? China, mainly (pdf, p.93). Fetuses in particular are considered a delicacy, one associated with enhanced virility. Pangolin blood and body parts have also long been an ingredient prized in traditional Chinese medicine to treat asthma, cancer and reproductive problems. WI says the government permits designated hospitals to use pangolin products, while barring retail sales.

Flickr user Bart Wursten (photo has been cropped)

Buoyed by surging disposable incomes, China’s pangolin demand has pushed prices into the stratosphere. In the early 1990s, a kilogram of pangolin scales cost but 80 yuan (about $14). The same amount now fetches 1,200 yuan ($199), according to WI. Served as meat, pangolins fetch around $1,000 each.

Scarcity is also driving up prices. As many as 50,000 wild pangolins lived in China as of 2000. Estimates by Conservation International put their numbers at less than 5,000. China’s native pangolin is now considered “endangered.”

The allure of soaring pangolin prices has heightened the appeal of industrial-scale poaching in Southeast Asia. Poachers are now plundering pangolins in India, Nepal and Pakistan, as well, reports Scientific American. The trade has hit Africa’s pangolin population (pdf) too, report scientists. With its channels already well developed, Indonesia has now established itself as an entrepôt to China, and Indonesian government officials are mulling the possibility of legalizing the trade in order to monitor it, reports WI. Most conservationists differ with this approach, arguing that doing so would create channels through which illegal trade could more easily flow.

Reuters/Chaiwat Subprasom
$32,372 worth of dead pangolins seized by Thai officials.

International regulators and pangolin experts are now trying to launch a more forceful conservation effort. Education alone could make a big difference given that some of Chinese demand seems rooted in lack of awareness about pangolins’ endangered or threatened status.

Meanwhile, Chinese officials are clearly stepping up crackdowns. Incidents like the arrests in the tweet above or Chinese customs’ seizure of 8.1 tons of frozen pangolin (link in Chinese) and 1.6 tons of scales earlier this month are increasingly common. But, as with so many other animals, until Chinese demand ebbs, the pangolin’s days are numbered.