It may come as a surprise to many to discover that a lowly anteater tops the list of the world’s most trafficked endangered mammals.
The pangolin, also known as a scaly anteater, can vary in size from only 12 to 39 inches long.
But the small creatures can fight off animal predators with their sharp claws and scales that act as a kind of armor.
Pangolins, however, possess little defense against human predators.
A rising demand in China for the meat and scales of pangolins reached the point several years ago that all eight varieties of the animal were deemed vulnerable or critically endangered.
According to the Swiss-based International Union For Conservation of Nature (IUCN), pangolins account for as much as 20 percent of all illegal wildlife trade.
The IUCN says that more than a million pangolins were poached in the decade prior to 2014.
Thanks to conservationists and nongovernmental organizations, both local and international, we now know more about pangolins than might be expected.
An IUCN Species Survival Commission formed a pangolin specialist group in 2012, comprising 100 experts from 25 countries and hosted by the Zoological Society of London.
The commission also coordinated an annual pangolin awareness day, World Pangolin Day, in mid-February, starting in 2014.
Pangolins can be found in a number of countries in Asia, including China, India, Indonesia, Myanmar, Thailand, and Vietnam, among others.
In Africa, the east-central African nation of Uganda appears to be a leading supplier.
The trade is highly profitable.
Smugglers can purchase pangolins at low prices in Uganda, for example, and then sell them at high prices in Asia.
Experts say that most trafficked pangolins get shipped by smugglers either to China or to Vietnam.
In both countries, the animals’ scales are prized for their alleged medicinal value.
According to at least one media report, pangolin scales have also been used as fashion accessories.
Pangolin meat, meanwhile, is considered an exotic luxury food.
In Vietnam, some restaurants serve the meat as their most costly delicacy.
At one Ho Chi Minh City restaurant, advance booking for pangolin dishes is reported to be required.
In 2016, an international body in charge of regulating wildlife trading worldwide took the strongest possible action to ban pangolin poaching, trafficking, and sales.
All 182 member nations belonging to the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) voted in favor of the ban.
Hong Kong slow to move
China, meanwhile, has been cracking down on the trade.
And on Jan. 1 this year, Vietnam amended its penal code to increase the maximum prison sentence for illegal wildlife trafficking from seven to 15 years.
But when it comes to the trafficking of pangolins as well as rhinoceros horns, Vietnam has been slow to implement its pledges or to impose the maximum sentences.
According to a CNN report in 2014, Vietnam had only a limited capability to deal with rescued pangolins. Activists working to halt the trade and care for captured pangolins had “vastly inadequate support,” the report said.
Hong Kong has also been lax in implementing penalties.
Many citizens in Hong Kong apparently believe that pangolin scales have medical uses, although there is no scientific evidence to support this belief.
Pangolins have a thick layer of protective scales made from keratin, the same material that makes up human fingernails.
Users boil the pangolin hide to remove the scales then dry and roast them.
On March 22, reporters from the French news agency Agence France Presse (AFP) reported that despite the international ban, Hong Kong shops were still selling pangolins scales, sometimes from behind stacks of boxes containing other goods.
One salesman selling the scales for $108 for only 40 grams claimed that the scales when boiled and then fried could remove toxins.
The scales can cost more than $3,000 for one kilogram on the black market.
As the AFP noted, Hong Kong has a reputation for trading in the body parts of several banned or endangered animals, including elephant ivory, shark fins, rhino horn, and tigers’ pelts and teeth.
But Hong Kong customs officials have now stepped up their actions against pangolin smugglers.
According to official reports, seizures of smuggled pangolins in Hong Kong rose from 1.4 tons in 2016 to 7.7 tons in 2017. The pangolins came from Africa.
In December last year, Hong Kong customs officers pursued a gang of smugglers for two hours as they tried to enter mainland China. One smuggler, a Hong Kong citizen, was arrested.
Across the border from Hong Kong inside China’s Guangdong Province, AFP reporters interviewed shopkeepers who said that they feared trouble from the authorities if they sold pangolin scales there.
The illegal trade in pangolins is reported to be widespread in Indonesia, where 31,000 pangolins were seized between 2007 and 20015.
Meanwhile, in Malaysia, Thailand, and Uganda, some 21,000 pangolins were reported to have been confiscated during the same period.
Indonesia has declared bans on the hunting and trading of the endangered animals, while threatening harsh penalties for violators.
But as elsewhere, enforcement in Indonesia is the problem, with insufficient funds dedicated to regulating the trade.
Pangolin publicity problem
Endangered pangolins have gained much less international attention than the elephants and rhinos who have been killed for their much sought-after tusks and horns.
According to some experts, these big animals possess a kind of charisma unfortunately lacking in the smaller anteaters.
Pangolins are nocturnal, making them difficult to observe in their natural habitats.
In captivity, they’re susceptible to disease and depression, so pangolins are rarely to be found in zoos.
An exception can be seen in Taiwan, where pangolins have been treated as small superstars, taken into zoos, restored to good health when injured, and returned to the wild when possible.
In the United States, the only pangolin on display in an American zoo died on Oct. 4, 2016.
Baba, a white-bellied tree pangolin who lived in a zoo in San Diego, had lived to be about 10 years old.
He was one of the longest-lived of his kind ever recorded, according to the San Diego Tribune newspaper.
Some pangolins live in underground burrows and some, like Baba, live in trees.
The Tribune reported that Baba was brought to the zoo in 2007 after fish and wildlife officials intercepted him in an illegal shipment.
Near death, Baba was nursed back to health and lived in the children’s zoo, where “he became a beloved ambassador for his species,” according to zoo officials who issued a statement following he pangolin’s death.
Baba, the officials said, “will be greatly missed by all who knew him.”
Dan Southerland is RFA's founding executive editor.