VOICES Voices Icon Ideas and Insight From Explorers


Pangolins Roll into the Wildlife Trafficking Spotlight

Thousands of pangolins are killed each year in the illegal wildlife trade. Photo courtesy of Tikki Hywood Trust, Zimbabwe
Thousands of pangolins are killed each year in the illegal wildlife trade. Photo courtesy of Tikki Hywood Trust, Zimbabwe.

An unexpected newcomer has joined the world’s most iconic species — the elephant, rhino, and tiger — under the international wildlife trafficking crisis spotlight: Meet the pangolin.

Pangolins are unmistakable in appearance — they are covered with scales comprised of keratin, and indeed, petting a pangolin feels like stroking a layer of warm thumbnails. There are eight species of pangolin, with four in Africa and four in Asia. They range from the size of a domestic cat to a medium-sized dog. The smaller arboreal species use prehensile tails to assist with navigating forested habitats, while larger terrestrial pangolins sometimes walk upright (as seen in the video below).

The remarkable scales of the pangolin provide an excellent defense against natural predators. When pangolins feel threatened, they roll up into a tight ball which is nearly impenetrable, even for lions and hyenas. Pangolins have also been known to deploy their roly-polyness in order to make use of shallow water.

Pangolins are highly specialized feeders. Not only do pangolins dine exclusively on ants and termites, some researchers believe that this diet is even more precise and limited to local ant and termite species. The tongue is uniquely suited to extracting these particular insects from deep tunnels; it is attached near the pelvis, and when fully extended, the tongue is longer than the pangolin’s body.

Unfortunately, pangolins are the most frequently encountered mammal in Asia’s illegal wildlife trade. It is not uncommon for police and customs authorities to seize hundreds, or even thousands, of pangolins in a single incident. The primary destination for pangolin scales and flesh is mainland China; pangolin parts are consumed in Vietnam as well. Scales are erroneously believed to have medicinal properties, and the flesh and fetuses are eaten as delicacies.

Pangolins and a tortoise await certain death at a wildlife market in Indonesia. Photo courtesy of TRAFFIC Southeast Asia.
Pangolins and a tortoise await certain death at a wildlife market in Indonesia. Photo courtesy of TRAFFIC Southeast Asia.

Quite literally tons of pangolins are taken out of Southeast Asia’s rainforests every year, with the hardest hit species being the Sunda pangolin. Dr. Chris Shepherd, Regional Director of TRAFFIC Southeast Asia, explains that “tens of thousands of pangolin hunters” are at work every day.

“In places like Sumatra, for example, there are tens of thousands of people working in rural situations — in plantations, in forests, in agriculture — and basically, everybody knows if you find a pangolin, you can sell it. So it’s a bonus. There are few, if any, full-time pangolin collectors. It’s a side income. So when you have that many people out there, if each person finds a pangolin every two weeks or something, it adds up. You’ve effectively got potentially tens of thousands of pangolin ‘hunters’ out there every day.”

In fact, pangolin hunters and traders say that pangolins have disappeared entirely from some areas in Asia, which has led to increased trade in African pangolins. This is a familiar pattern. Following the depletion of the Asian rhino species, wildlife traffickers turned to African rhinos. And in order to fill the gap in the illegal market left by the disappearance of Asia’s tigers, some proprietors of South Africa’s lion farms are (legally) selling lion skeletons to wildlife traffickers.

Pangolin trafficking in Africa has not reached the commercial scale seen in Asia. However, Lisa Hywood, founder of Tikki Hywood Trust in Zimbabwe, says that pangolins are “most definitely” becoming more frequent in bushmeat seizures.

“Now, when there are seizures made and the animals are lain out on the ground, you start seeing pangolins in literally every seizure that’s going through borders.”

She says that pangolins are generally part of wildlife seizures that include primates, porcupines and other animals targeted by the bushmeat trade. Hywood notes that the pangolin trade has increased rapidly over the last few years, and says there is a correlation with air routes being opened between Africa and Asia. There has been a major influx of people from Asia into Africa, and we have to consider cultural differences, she says.

This year, there has already been a seizure of 39 pangolins in China, with one person taken into custody. 2013 was definitely deadly for pangolins, with an estimated 8,125 of these shy creatures confiscated in 49 instances of illegal trade across 13 countries. Because seizures represent just 10 to 20 percent of the actual illegal trade volume, this strongly suggests that approximately 40,625 to 81,250 pangolins were killed in just one year. And this is a conservative estimate compiled mainly from media reports.

All eight pangolin species are currently listed under CITES (the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora) Appendix II, which allows for some regulated trade (“subject to strict regulation in order to avoid utilization incompatible with their survival”), although a zero export quota is in place for wild-caught Asian pangolins. Considering that pangolins rarely survive in captivity, it is extremely unlikely that captive breeding is taking place for this species. Dr. Shepherd warns that wildlife traders are notorious for exploiting this loophole.

“Claims of breeding pangolins for commercial purposes should be treated as fraud and investigated. Declaring wild-caught animals, of many species, as captive-bred is an extremely common form of fraud and should become an issue of high priority for enforcement agencies.”

Yet, despite these concerns, it was recently suggested that laws should be relaxed to increase legal trade in pangolins. But most pangolin trade experts, including Dr. Shepherd, caution against providing additional avenues for laundering illegally sourced wildlife. He describes the idea as “an absolute nightmare”.

“It will potentially — greatly — increase the risk to pangolins. In countries in Southeast Asia, where species are legally traded, I can’t give you any examples where threatened species are recovering because of commercial trade, or where poaching has declined. For example, the Siamese crocodile is heavily farmed in Southeast Asia — legally — and yet the wild population is all but gone.”

There is comparatively little data available on pangolins. One thing we do know, according to IUCN Red List assessments, is that all pangolin populations are declining.

Both Shepherd and Hywood are concerned that national laws in pangolin range states are inconsistently enforced, and agree that awareness of pangolins needs be raised among law enforcement agencies and judiciaries. Dr. Shepherd points out the challenges.

“Even awareness of the wildlife acts and the laws protecting wildlife are often poorly understood or poorly known among enforcement agencies. There’s a lot of work to do on that front. Capacity amongst enforcement agencies is also pretty low in many countries, where officers just aren’t trained to carry out proper investigations, or prosecutors aren’t equipped to prosecute wildlife crimes. And let’s face it: most people don’t know what a pangolin is, so getting enforcement agencies excited about cracking down on pangolin trade is an uphill battle.”

Although Zimbabwe handed down a nine-year prison sentence to a pangolin trafficker in October 2013, Hywood is disappointed that subsequent cases were not as successful. She explains that Zimbabwe’s laws provide for full protection of pangolins, but are not aways enforced. It’s a challenge, she says, because you have to reach everyone, from the guy who makes the arrest all the way up to the magistrate. “All of those people need to be sensitized to the importance of pangolin.”

Dr. Shepherd emphasizes the necessity of international cooperation for addressing the illegal trade in pangolins.

“Increased communication and cooperation between authorities in all pangolin range states and in consumer countries is essential, and multi-national enforcement efforts should be carried out to dismantle trade chains and to put the main players in the pangolin trade behind bars.”

There seems to be encouraging news on the horizon for pangolins — and other species threatened by wildlife trafficking. The historical London Conference on The Illegal Wildlife Trade, held February 12 – 13 of this year, resulted in 41 countries pledging to end this global scourge.

“The economic, social, and environmental impacts of the illegal wildlife trade can only be effectively tackled if we eradicate both the demand and supply sides for illegal products wherever in the world this occurs.”

The London Conference was preceded by the International Wildlife Trafficking Symposium on February 11 – 12, a forum for sharing experiences from those involved in fighting wildlife crime, as well as those active in other, related fields that can provide insight in combating wildlife trafficking. The Prince of Wales and his son HRH The Duke of Cambridge — both active in the fight against wildlife trafficking — attended the Symposium.

On February 11, the United States unveiled its National Strategy for Combating Wildlife Trafficking. The National Strategy will advance the strategic priorities of Strengthening domestic and global enforcement, reducing demand for illegally traded wildlife at home and abroad, and building international cooperation. This includes tightening loopholes for domestic ivory trade.

The National Strategy even includes pangolins on page 4:

“The scale and scope of wildlife trafficking continue to grow at an alarming rate, reversing decades of conservation gains. Wildlife trafficking threatens an increasing variety of terrestrial, freshwater, and marine species, including but not limited to: elephants, rhinos, tigers, sharks, tuna, sea turtles, land tortoises, great apes, exotic birds, pangolins, sturgeon, coral, iguanas, chameleons, and tarantulas. Wildlife trafficking is facilitated and exacerbated by illegal harvest and trade in plants and trees, which destroys needed habitat and opens access to previously remote populations of highly endangered wildlife, such as tigers.”

Public awareness about pangolins also appears to be on the rise. These endearing mammals were celebrated on February 15 — the third annual World Pangolin Day.

World Pangolin Day is celebrated on the third Saturday in February.
World Pangolin Day is celebrated on the third Saturday in February.

World Pangolin Day, celebrated on the third Saturday in February, capitalizes on the reach of social media and has gained supporters across pangolin range countries in both Asia and Africa, as well as the West. This year, wildlife activists in China — the main consumer of pangolins — launched a pangolin campaign on Weibo to mark World Pangolin Day:

World Pangolin Day 2014 was celebrated offline as well. BCARE (Biodiversity Conservation Awareness Research and Education) Foundation in India reports that students at the CSI Higher Secondary School in Tamil Nadu formed a human rangoli, creating the words “World Pangolin Day.”

You can help make a difference for pangolins by sharing information with your friends and colleagues, and by supporting organizations that work to protect pangolins (listed in the video below).


  1. Shana
    United States
    April 2, 2014, 6:01 pm

    Nat Geo thank you for this article, but please please please do a magazine cover story about the pangolin. These animals are so critically threatened and though awareness is increasing, they are still an unknown animal to most Westerners. You folks doing a major cover story would be such a huge step on increasimg awareness and support for these wonderful creatures.

  2. Viva
    February 23, 2014, 10:55 am

    We must ridicule the people who in 2014 still think that scales from pangolins and rhino horn has any practical or medical importance. The people who believe this, still live in the spirit of the Middle Ages. How unbelievable as it sounds, these animals are in greater danger now than ever before: the rising income in China and Vietnam and other third world countries means that there are now more people than ever can afford to buy products made from endangered animals. The young Chinese even believe it helps the hangover and that they can drink more without getting drunk if they consume powder made ​​of rhinoceros horn and elephant tusks – in 2014!

    And jorge ratz junior: No, THEY can not change their minds themselves – WE have to change THEIR minds by telling them they’re ridiculous…

  3. Maria Diekmann
    February 23, 2014, 3:12 am

    Stunning article! I work with these amazing creatures & articles like this are wonderful.

  4. Dr Pieter W. Kat
    February 22, 2014, 1:51 pm

    Good article Rhishja – the value of the illegal pangolin trade is far greater than that of the tiger trade. Tigers get much more attention…

    I would, as just a quick calculation, say that the pangolin trade is worth about $45-$65 million per year, given that both meat and scales have high commercial value. And that’s just based on the very few pangolin shipments reported as intercepted by the media. Pangolin “seizures” are just not a “newsworthy” item.

    I would disagree with TRAFFIC “expert” Chris Shepherd when he mentions that:

    “There are few, if any, full-time pangolin collectors. It’s a side income. ”

    How then does he explain that just one Chinese “fishing vessel” that had the misfortune of grounding on a reef in the Philippines (and therefore cuaght) had over 10 tons of frozen pangolins on board? This is not just a side income. How many Chinese “fishing vessels” get through with their cargos?


  5. jorge ratz junior
    sorocaba-são paulo-brazil
    February 19, 2014, 3:42 pm

    I think the only way to save these beautiful animals is creating laws that make pangolin trade a crime.

  6. jorge ratz junior
    sorocaba-são paulo-brazil
    February 19, 2014, 3:36 pm

    It seems that the worst threat to most asian and african species is the tradition of many asians. They must change their minds before it`s too late.

  7. Waci
    February 19, 2014, 3:17 pm

    this animal looks like it was put to together by tile.

  8. clint
    okmulgee OK
    February 19, 2014, 1:24 pm

    this animal is crazy lookin in a way like a dragon type animal.