...unless you're familiar with pangolins — anteaters that are covered with hard, pseudo-reptilian scales. A new report from the Public Security Bureau for Forests in China's Yunnan province and Oxford University reveals that pangolins are being traded on "a shocking scale," with most of them going to China, where the scales are used for medicinal purposes.
The findings were published this week in the journal Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment. Last year, records indicate that approximately 8,125 trafficked pangolins were seized in China and 12 other countries — but seizures are only said to represent 10 to 20 per cent of all actual illegal trade volume.
"The numbers of pangolins traded are shocking, and all the more so considering the pharmaceutical pointlessness of the trade," David Macdonald, director of the University of Oxford's Wildlife Conservation Research Unit and paper co-author, told the BBC. "This trade is intolerably wasteful."
There are eight species of pangolins, four Asian and four African. Chinese and Sunda pangolins are both on the endangered list of the International Union for the Conservation of Nature. Indian and Philippine pangolins are said to be Near Threatened. The Giant and White-Bellied pangolins in Africa are also considered Near Threatened.
Pangolins are often captured and traded to be eaten, as well as for use in traditional Chinese medicine. Roasted scales are thought to have healing qualities for a number of ailments, especially to relieve palsy, treat asthma and stimulate lactation. A kilo of pangolin scales now sells for around $600 on the underground market, while the whole animal can go for $1,000.
There is no scientific evidence to support that pangolin scales have medicinal properties.
Under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) treaty, it is illegal to remove pangolins from the wild for trade. Whereas endangered animals like elephants, tigers and rhinos are hard to smuggle because of their size and prominence, many people — including Chinese customs officials — are unaware of what a pangolin is, let alone that it's endangered.
"We've uncovered a disastrous situation and currently all the omens for the pangolin are bad but hopefully by drawing attention to this useless trade, international opinion may contribute to changing the situation of the pangolin," Macdonald said.
Many other endangered species are also used in traditional Chinese medicine including tigers and black bears — you can find a more comprehensive list here. And many of them get more attention than the pangolin. Rhinos, for example, have Jackie Chan speaking out against their illegal trade:
Alas, pangolins haven't been adopted by any celebrity spokespeople. Doesn't mean they're not adorable, though. Just take a look at the video below: