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Photo: David Brossard / Flickr

It’s World Pangolin Day!

Now in its sixth year, the event takes place every third Saturday in February, and serves as a means for conservation groups to raise awareness of a creature that a lot of people have probably never heard of.

With their plated backs and steely tails, pangolins resemble a “cousin” of the American armadillo. Hailing from regions of Africa and South Asia, they’re often labeled the world’s most trafficked mammals, and their numbers have dropped to critical levels in recent years. As many as 233,000 pangolins were killed between 2011 and 2013, according to the World Wildlife Fund.

The International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW) claims at least 74 separate seizures of pangolin products have occurred in areas like China since 2015.

“Pangolins are falling prey to the ultimate predator: humans,” says the organization’s assistant campaigns officer, Mark Hofberg. “The rate at which pangolins are being poached is unprecedented and unsustainable. The value we place on pangolins should be for their role in the world, not as a status symbol.”

Speaking with Planet Experts, Hofberg has worked with IFAW for a little over two years. Pangolin scales have been used in traditional medicine for centuries, though the mass slaughter we see today can be traced back to the 1990s. The pangolin was considered commercially extinct in China, which prompted traders to begin illegally importing specimens from neighboring countries.

“In the last decade, you now see huge illegal shipments of scales and meat from Indonesia, India, Cameroon, Nigeria, the Democratic Republic of Congo, and other countries,” Hofberg explains. “We are talking tons, which translates to thousands of animals. Many trace the rapid rise of pangolin trafficking to rising demand from China and Vietnam driven by the expanding middle class with more expendable income.”

Aside from their scales, pangolins are widely treasured for their meat, which is considered a delicacy in some Asian countries. Vietnam, for example, proudly serves pangolin meat in upscale restaurants, which sometimes sells for nearly $350 a kilo.

A pangolin assumes its defensive position by curling up into a ball. (Photo: Wildlife Alliance / Flickr)

A pangolin assumes its defensive position by curling up into a ball. (Photo: Wildlife Alliance / Flickr)

The most disturbing data stems from a report by Oxford’s Wildlife Conservation Unit, which suggests the animal possesses a certain “innocence.” When frightened or faced with conflict, a pangolin will usually curl into a ball as a way of defending itself rather than attack, but this decision proves ruinous according to co-author Chris Newman.

“When in jeopardy, pangolins roll into a ball and can conveniently be bundled into a sack so that pangolin contraband is easy to transport and often goes unnoticed,” he says.

It’s an ugly story; one that suggests outside help is desperately needed. IFAW has worked hard to give these animals their day in court, and for the most part, efforts have proved fruitful.

“We were able to upgrade all eight species of pangolin from Appendix II to Appendix I of CITES (Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species) at the Conference of Parties last year,” Hofberg said. “This may sound pretty wonky, but it’s a huge deal. Appendix I means that there cannot be commercial trading of pangolins across country lines. It was a huge victory for us and the groups we worked with on it. On a more personal level, several of the animal rescue facilities we help fund in Africa are taking in rescued pangolins.”

However, the good news comes with a side of caution.

“It was a monumental win for pangolins when all 8 pangolin species were uplisted to Appendix I of CITES,” says Keri Parker, one of two conservation biologists who run Save Pangolins. “The fight to save pangolins does not stop here. Although this marks a big win for pangolins, much more needs to be done to reduce the threat of extinction.”

Paul Thomson, the other scientist running the organization, agrees. “More investment is needed from governments, strengthening ties between conservation groups is essential, and stricter enforcement must be a priority,” he says. “Meanwhile, people around the world need to be made aware of pangolins and the threats facing them.”

Protection agencies are doing their job – the problem is that enforcement of anti-trafficking laws tends to be relatively haphazard, and penalties for those caught in the act are “very light” as Hofberg puts it.

“There is very little disincentive to poaching and trafficking the animals,” he mentions. “In many cases, poachers and traffickers get off without even a conviction.”

Luckily, things may be changing. Approximately three metric tons of pangolin scales were confiscated in Cameroon on the eve of tonight’s celebration. The scales were destroyed by fire in Africa’s first-ever burn event, designed to send a national message of intolerance towards trafficking. It is considered a significant step forward in Africa’s fight for pangolins.

“We are seeing record seizures of pangolins coming from Central Africa headed to Asia,” Parker says. “That’s why Save Pangolins is working to strengthen the capacity of conservationists in Central Africa to combat this illegal trade.”

Lack of awareness is also a major issue. Many people aren’t even familiar with pangolins’ existence, much less the violent conditions they face on a regular basis.

“People just don’t know how vulnerable these amazing creatures are to extinction,” Hofberg says. That’s where World Pangolin Day comes in handy, and the campaigns officer mentions some of the unique methods he’s witnessed over the years for bringing awareness to their plight.

“There are some great campaigns out there,” he says. “Here at IFAW, we have some great videos and pictures that we post on social media to show just how darn cute they are and also how much they need our help. I would say my favorite bit was in The Jungle Book movie that Disney put out. There was a pangolin in it, and there was a great line from the bear where he brings up that he is endangered. I thought it was very creative… When it came out, people were asking me, ‘What is that little armadillo-looking thing?’”

As the lead author of a petition to grant all pangolin species protection under the Endangered Species Act, Hofberg seems to share a personal connection with the animals.

“Pangolins absolutely fascinate me,” he admitted. “They are evolutionarily unique, breaking off from the order Carnivora an estimated 87 million years ago. They have their own order, family, and genus, and a glut of very specific tools like their long sticky tongues, scales made of fused hair, and strong stomachs that make them a scientific marvel. If their cuteness doesn’t get to you, the fact that they represent an entire mammalian evolutionary branch should.”

Pangolins.org lists several things people can do to get involved, such as blogging and offering education about their struggles. Hofberg also provides a few suggestions of his own.

“Be an ambassador for pangolins,” he mentions. “Talk to your friends, post on social media, learn the facts. Also, support better protections in the U.S. and abroad! At this point, it’s about awareness.”

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