More than 10,000 of these scaly critters are being smuggled into China each year

At least 10,000 pangolins are smuggled into China each year.
At least 10,000 pangolins are smuggled into China each year.
Image: AP Photo/Jefri Tarigan
We may earn a commission from links on this page.

The “most-traded wild animal” is one that most people don’t know exists: the pangolin. Each year, an estimated 10,000 of these spiny anteaters are smuggled into China from Southeast Asia, though experts think the real number is much higher, says a new report (paywall) by Chinese wildlife enforcement officials and UK researchers. Pangolin-smuggling is the latest example of China’s booming demand for illegal wildlife, a major driver of the $19 billion-a-year global trade.

The same scales that shield these spiny anteaters from predators are a prized ingredient in traditional Chinese medicine. Prices for pangolin scales have skyrocketed since the 1990s, when they fetched around $14 per kilogram ($6.4 per pound); by 2008, they had hit $300 per kilo. Now a kilo costs around $600.

The animal is valuable for more than just its scales, though. In southern China, pangolins fetch up to $1,000 per animal in restaurants catering to the “wild flavor” culinary culture. Fetuses in particular are considered a delicacy.

The surge in disposable incomes in China is one factor behind the ramped-up slaughter of the world’s eight pangolin species, two of which are already endangered.

But as we’ve reported in the past, the government permits designated hospitals that practice traditional Chinese medicine and pharmaceutical companies to use pangolin products, though it bans retail sales. Pangolin body parts are thought to treat asthma, reproductive problems, swelling, boils, arthritis, and even cancer.

Experts, however, are dubious of their purported salubrious effects.

“The numbers of pangolins traded are shocking, and all the more so considering the pharmaceutical pointlessness of the trade,” Professor David Macdonald, director of the University of Oxford’s Wildlife Conservation Research Unit and co-author of the study, told the BBC. “This trade is intolerably wasteful.”

It’s not clear how government-designated hospitals and pharmaceutical companies buy pangolin parts when the trade itself is illegal. Macdonald says they come into China through a variety of hard-to-monitor channels, including the post.

The pangolin’s plight has been overshadowed by that of so-called “charismatic megafauna,” big iconic animals like elephants, rhinoceroses and tigers, all of whose body parts are in high demand in China for similar medicinal practices.