Pangolins are peculiar creatures. Their tongue can be longer than their body, they look like a pinecone with legs, and they are covered in knobbly, terracotta-colored scales. They are solitary, elusive forest-dwellers that spray a nasty-smelling chemical from their anus and roll up into a ball when threatened – but that doesn’t protect them from human hunters.
Traded for their meat and scales, they are the world’s most-trafficked mammals.
The four Asian pangolin species are critically endangered, largely due to insatiable Chinese demand for their scales for use in traditional medicines (they are believed to cure asthma, cancer, and even, in the past at least, ‘women possessed by devils and ogres’).
As pangolins become harder to find in Southeast Asia, traders are now turning to the African species, traditionally hunted for food in the forests of the Congo Basin, where they are still relatively abundant.
Researchers knew that populations there were under increasing pressure – but a new study provides critical data that underlines the scale of the threat.
“Before you could say that pangolins were in real trouble, but you couldn’t prove it,” says Lauren Coad, a member of the Bushmeat Research Initiative at the Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR).
Now, you can. By collating data on the pangolin catch from 71 sites in 10 Central African countries, Coad and colleagues found that pressure from hunting has increased.
Research was conducted by Daniel Ingram as part of his PhD, with the wider project lead by Coad and Prof. Jorn Scharlemann, from the University of Sussex.
The researchers estimate that between 400,000 and 2.7 million of the scaly mammals are hunted in Africa every year, and their analysis suggests that represents an increase of 150 percent since 2000.
In addition, 45 percent of pangolins caught were juveniles or sub-adults, an indicator that over-exploitation is likely taking place, as most of them wouldn’t have had time to breed.
The sale price of pangolins in urban markets increased as well. Over two decades from 1993 to 2014, the price of arboreal pangolins more than doubled, while giant pangolins went for almost six times the price. The percentage of pangolins in the overall bushmeat catch has also increased.
“The change in price suggests there is this trade now going on from Central Africa over to Asia, because of the decline in pangolins in Southeast Asian forests and the continued demand in China,” says Coad. She says in Gabon – where in rural markets pangolins sell for as little US$5 – there’s evidence Chinese agents are buying up pangolins and shipping them home, where one pangolin can net more than US$600 a kilo.
That’s now illegal under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES), which in 2016 slapped a total ban on the international trade of all eight pangolin species – a decision partly based on evidence provided by Coad and Scharlemann’s team.
“We can now start targeting policy makers and influencers in China and other places creating the demand, and say, ‘you have obligations under CITES, we need to do something about this,’” she says.
THE POWER OF DATA
The CITES decision shows that data can have a real impact on policy, Coad says.
Similar research on African elephant populations has highlighted the impact of the ivory trade for the species’ survival, with forest elephant populations declining by over 60 percent in less than 10 years.
Subsequent media attention and intensive lobbying led to China starting to implement a total ivory ban this year.
If we can reduce Chinese demand for pangolin scales, then we can save the pangolins.
“If China cracks down on ivory, there is hope for African elephants. If they don’t do it, they elephants are gone,” says Coad.
“There are so few left that they really need to do something now – and it looks like they will. That’s amazing – and the first domino to set it off was people on the ground, collecting data.”
“It’s the same with pangolins. Nobody needs pangolin scales for medicine. There is no proof that they actually do anything useful if you eat them – they are made of keratin, just like your toenails.”
“If we can reduce Chinese demand for pangolin scales, then we can save the pangolins. But we have to start now, before we start to see catastrophic declines in the African populations.”
“There are lots of other pieces to come into the puzzle to create good conservation outcomes, but I’m a geeky scientist – I believe in data.”
“We care about what we measure, as economist Amartya Sen said. If we can start measuring the hunting pressures and impacts on pangolins, then people will start to act.”
The pangolin study is just the start of an even more ambitious project.
Inspired by the Living Planet Index, which monitors biodiversity and vertebrate populations, Coad, Scharlemann and colleagues want to create a global index that tracks wildlife consumption worldwide over time.
Not just pangolins, but monkeys, pigs, deer, rodents, birds, crocodiles – even insects.
“The idea overall is to get an estimate of how much wildlife is the human race consuming, and how does that change across the planet, and then look at how can we use that information to work out how to do it more sustainably.”
“If it’s a wild animal and we stick it in our mouths, that’s what we want to measure.”
The Central Africa pangolin study shows what’s possible, Coad says.
“This way of collating and learning from local-scale data to investigate broad-scale patterns is crucial for informing conservation action and policy.”