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China’s insatiable thirst for pangolin scales is fed by an international black market

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The pangolin has walked the earth for 80 million years. Described as a living pinecone and an artichoke with legs, it’s a toothless scaly animal that looks sort of like a snake mixed with an anteater. It’s also one of the most widely traded wild animals in the world. Illegal pangolin trafficking is so common that all eight species of the little-known creature are categorized as “vulnerable,” “endangered,” or “critically endangered.”

This week, Chinese customs executed the largest-ever seizure of pangolin scales, confiscating 3.1 tons of them from smugglers. According to Chinese state media, the scales were hidden in a container arriving from Africa, and registered as timber. Customs officers discovered the scales—from about 7,500 pangolins—in 101 woven plastic bags hidden aboard the ship; they’re worth more than $2 million on the black market.

The main suspect in the case confessed that he has been smuggling pangolin scales between Africa and China since 2015. Since the animals are protected in China, smugglers face 10-plus years in prison.

Frozen pangolins are seen at a wild animal rescue center in Hanoi, Vietnam September 9, 2016.  REUTERS/Kham/File Photo - RTSPWNM
Frozen pangolins are seen at a wild animal rescue center in Hanoi, Vietnam September 9, 2016. (Reuters/ Kham)
A customs officer gives water to pangolins before a news conference at the customs department in Bangkok September 26, 2011. Officers stopped a pick-up truck carrying 97 pangolins,  worth around 1 million baht ($32,372), in the southern province of Prachuap Khiri Khan on Sunday. According to custom officers, the pangolins were en route to be sold in China.   REUTERS/Chaiwat Subprasom (THAILAND - Tags: CRIME LAW ANIMALS) - RTR2RUS1
A customs officer gives water to pangolins before a news conference at the customs department in Bangkok September 26, 2011. Officers stopped a pick-up truck carrying 97 pangolins, worth around 1 million baht ($32,372), en route for China. (Reuters/Chaiwat Subprasom)

The seizure is one of many. According to estimates from UK researchers and Chinese wildlife enforcement officials, about 10,000 pangolins are smuggled into China from Southeast Asia each year. Prices for pangolins have also increased astronomically: In the 1990s, they were worth about $14 per kilogram. Today it’s $600.

Authorities have tried to put a stop to the international pangolin racket. Inter-country trading of the animal was officially banned in September, and the pangolin has been given the highest level of protection by the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species. Elly Pepper, deputy director of the Natural Resources Defense Council’s wildlife trade initiative, said the designation gives “the world’s most trafficked mammal a fighting chance at survival.”

Slaughtered pangolins are seen on the ground after they were seized by the authority, at an underground garage in Guangzhou, Guangdong province September 11, 2014. According to local media, four men suspected of illegally trading 457 pangolins were arrested on Thursday. Pangolins are listed as a second grade protected species in China. Picture taken September 11, 2014. REUTERS/Stringer (CHINA - Tags: CRIME LAW SOCIETY ANIMALS) CHINA OUT. NO COMMERCIAL OR EDITORIAL SALES IN CHINA - RTR45XC2
Slaughtered pangolins are seen on the ground after they were seized at an underground garage in Guangzhou in September 2014. (Reuters/ Stringer)

But enforcement is a different beast. For one, pangolins are usually killed, skinned, and frozen before being traded on the black market. Their skins are hard to differentiate from fish and snakes, which are often mixed with pangolins as cover. In June, 4.4 tons of pangolin scales were seized in Hong Kong, hidden in cargo labeled “sliced plastics” from Cameroon. Last year, a raid at a seafood warehouse in Indonesia yielded over 4,000 pangolins. In 2013, six tons of live pangolins were seized in Vietnam, and over the past five years, 4.7 tons of pangolin scales have been seized in India, where the pangolin is the most traded species. Overall, the International Union for Conservation of Nature estimates that, since 2012, more than 20,000kg of scales from roughly 30,000 African pangolins bound for Asia have been seized in Africa, Asia, or Europe. And those are only the people that got caught.

A woman sells crocodiles and pangolins at a food market in Bata, February 6, 2015. REUTERS/Amr Abdallah Dalsh (EQUATORIAL GUINEA - Tags: ANIMALS SOCIETY) - RTR4OJ3O
A woman sells crocodiles and pangolins at a food market in Bata, February 6, 2015. (Reuters/Amr Abdallah Dalsh)

But perhaps the most impenetrable part of the pangolin market is the reason for their value. Pangolin meat is considered a delicacy in China and Vietnam; in southern China, each animal can go for up to $1,000 in restaurants. They are also consumed as bush meat in many parts of Africa. But most of their worth comes from their scales, which are used in traditional Chinese medicine to cure everything from asthma to reproductive problems; even cancer.

Experts aren’t sold on the healing power of pangolins, though. “Pangolin scales are made of the same stuff as your fingernails,” says Pepper at the Natural Resources Defense Council. “Contrary to the beliefs of some, they hold no medicinal value.”

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