Poaching is sending the shy, elusive pangolin to its doom

The small animals, whose scales are coveted for use in Chinese medicine, are now among the world’s most trafficked mammals.

By Rachael Bale
photographs by Brent Stirton
Published 10 Jun 2019, 13:01 BST
This story appears in the June 2019 issue of National Geographic magazine. The nonprofit National Geographic Society helped fund this story.

He’s the size of a golden retriever puppy and covered with scales.

With his tail stretched out parallel to the ground for balance, Tamuda holds his little arms in front of him like a T. rex.

The caretaker gently guides the young pangolin toward a dirt mound that he starts to break apart with a pick. Look, he encourages Tamuda: ants. Tamuda catches on and begins to eat, his nearly body-length tongue searching the crevices, his long claws mimicking the pick.

After a few minutes of eating, it’s time to move on. Tamuda lumbers a little farther. The caretaker shows him a new ant mound. This time the pangolin isn’t interested. He flops on his side like a toddler about to throw a tantrum. He curls his body around the boot of the caretaker, who bends down and gently tries to peel him off, but Tamuda wants attention.

Looking up into his human’s face, he reaches high, begging to be picked up. The caretaker tries to be strict—he’s supposed to be teaching Tamuda how to fend for himself—but the plea is too much to resist. As any good pangolin mother would do, he lifts Tamuda up and cradles him.

Pangolins are trafficked both for their scales and meat, considered by some to be a delicacy. In April 2015 more than 4,000 frozen pangolin carcasses, along with scales and nearly a hundred live animals, were discovered in Indonesia in a shipping container supposedly holding frozen fish.

Photograph by Paul Hilton

Tamuda’s lesson was taking place at the Tikki Hywood Foundation, a rescue center near Harare, Zimbabwe, where pangolins freed from the illegal wildlife trade by Lisa Hywood and her team recover.

Hywood—a fiery, compact woman prone to alternating between cooing lullabies to her rescuees and vociferously condemning the cruelty of man—has rescued more than 180 pangolins since 2012. Tikki Hywood is also home to rescued sable antelope, cows, a feisty goat, and a pair of donkeys named Jesus and Mary. (Joseph is no longer with us.)

Young pangolins like being up high. Until they’re several months old, their mothers carry them on their backs so the babies can observe how to behave. That’s probably where Tamuda was spending most of his time just before poachers snatched him and his mother from the wild. When a pangolin mother is afraid, she rolls into a ball, protecting her soft, peach-fuzz belly and her baby with the armor of her scales. It’s good defense against a lion, but it’s about the worst thing to do when your predator is a human and can scoop you up with bare hands.

Tamuda and his mother came to the rescue center in early 2017. A Zimbabwe border patrol officer caught a man from Mozambique trying to cross into the country with them in a sack. According to the wildlife trade monitoring organization Traffic, an estimated one million pangolins were poached from 2000 through 2013—mainly for their scales, used in traditional medicine. Pangolins are believed to be the most heavily trafficked nonhuman mammal in the world.

Law enforcement officers in Zimbabwe know that when they confiscate a pangolin, they should take it to Hywood. She’s one of the few people in the world who can keep pangolins alive in captivity. They’re sensitive creatures, picky eaters that consume only certain species of ants and termites, a diet that’s very difficult to replicate in captive situations.

Masked to protect their identities, law enforcement officers with Côte d’Ivoire’s organized crime unit sit atop nearly 8,000 pounds of pangolin scales seized in 2017 and 2018 and probably bound for China or Vietnam. As the four Asian pangolin species have become endangered, traffickers have turned to the African species.

But by letting them roam for hours a day across the property with stand-in mothers for protection, Tikki Hywood has helped many pangolins, Tamuda and his mother among them, recover well enough to be returned to the wild.

“Every time someone brings us a pangolin, I wonder if it’s the last one in Zimbabwe,” says Hywood, who founded the rescue center in 1994.

All eight species of pangolins, four in Africa and four in Asia, are in danger of extinction driven by the illegal trade. That’s why Tamuda’s caregiver isn’t being named. He and Hywood worry that if traders know the identities of the caregivers, they might be targeted by criminals who want access to the rescued animals.

Pangolins look like scaly armadillos, but they’re more closely related to bears and dogs. They constitute their own taxonomic order, and if they disappear, there’ll be nothing like them left on Earth.

A Temminck’s ground pangolin named Tamuda searches for a meal of ants or termites at a rehabilitation center in Zimbabwe. He was rescued from illegal wildlife traders, who likely would have smuggled his scales to Asia for use in traditional remedies.
Photograph by Brent Stirton

International trade in the four species of Asian pangolins has been prohibited since 2000. In 2017 a ban on international commercial trade in all eight species went into effect, voted in place by the 183 governments that are party to the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES), the treaty that regulates cross-border trade in wild animals and their parts.

At least 67 countries and territories on six continents have been involved in the pangolin trade, but the shipments with the biggest quantities of scales have originated in Cameroon, Nigeria, Sierra Leone, and Uganda, according to an analysis by Traffic. And they’ve mainly been heading to China.

“In the last decade, there’s been a massive growth in intercontinental trade in pangolins, especially their scales,” says Dan Challender, chair of the pangolin specialist group with the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), the global authority on the status of threatened species. Previously, most pangolin poaching and smuggling occurred within Asia, he says. This shift means that Asian pangolins are becoming difficult to find but that the value of scales makes it worth the extra cost to smuggle pangolins from Africa to Asia.

Pangolins are eaten as bushmeat in western and central Africa and by some indigenous groups in South and Southeast Asia. Their parts also are used in Ghana, Nigeria, South Africa, and elsewhere in sub-Saharan Africa as traditional medicine. And among some people in Vietnam and China, pangolin meat is considered a delicacy. But it’s demand for their scales that’s wiping out the animals.

Typically dried, ground into powder, and put into pills, pangolin scales are used in a range of traditional Chinese remedies, from treatments to help mothers with lactation to relief for arthritis and rheumatism. Scales can be found in medicine markets throughout Asia, including Vietnam, Thailand, Laos, and Myanmar.

In China, where such treatments continue to be sanctioned by the government, more than 200 pharmaceutical companies produce some 60 types of traditional medicines that contain pangolin scales, according to a 2016 report by the China Biodiversity Conservation and Green Development Foundation. Every year Chinese provinces collectively issue approvals for companies to use an average 29 tonnes of the scales, which roughly represents 73,000 individual pangolins.

Pangolins are usually solitary, but Tamuda and Luleko spend a rare moment near each other to take a drink from a puddle. Temminck’s ground pangolins walk on their back legs, using their tails and front legs for balance. Their sticky tongues, almost as long as their bodies, are anchored at the base of their rib cages.

China’s pangolins had become noticeably scarce by the mid-1990s, according to some reports, because of overhunting. As demand persisted, Chinese companies continued to make pangolin products, ostensibly by turning to two legal sources of scales: stockpiles amassed from pangolins hunted within China before their numbers crashed and imports brought into the country before the bans went into place.

Pangolin trade records from CITES show that China imported a little more than 16 tonnes of scales during the 21-year period from 1994 to 2014—not nearly enough to meet the demand from pharmaceutical companies. Furthermore, the provincial governments often don’t verify that businesses are getting scales from stockpiled, rather than recently—and illegally—caught pangolins, says Zhou Jinfeng, director of the China Biodiversity Conservation group in Beijing that has been investigating the pangolin trade. He says he’s skeptical that scale stockpiles in China are big enough to fill companies’ needs more than two decades after pangolins virtually disappeared in the country.

“I don’t buy it,” he says. “After so many years, they still have that many in the stockpiles?”

No one really knows how many tonnes of pangolin scales are being smuggled each year—that’s the nature of the black market. But we do know it’s a lot, and we do know that the biggest shipments are going to China.

In 2017, for example, Chinese customs officials confiscated more than 13 tonnes of pangolin scales, from as many as 30,000 pangolins—one of the biggest seizures on record. Last year Hong Kong authorities seized 7.8 tons of scales in a single shipment on its way to China.

In all, China accounted for almost 30 percent of scale seizures globally from 2010 to 2015, according to Traffic. Keeping in mind that seizures are believed, conservatively, to represent about a quarter of actual illegal trade, these numbers suggest that hundreds of thousands of pangolins are slaughtered each year. (National Geographic asked several Chinese government agencies for comment and received no response.) 

Chinese companies are said to be working to breed pangolins on a large scale so they’ll have a steady supply. According to the China Biodiversity Conservation group, the government as of 2016 had issued 10 licenses to facilities to breed pangolins, ranging from rescue centres to investment companies. Another 20 pharmaceutical companies—along with businesses in Uganda, Laos, and Cambodia—launched a “breeding alliance” in 2014.

The problem is that no one has figured out how to breed pangolins on a commercial scale. “There’s just no way—you cannot satiate demand through breeding,” says Paul Thomson, a conservation biologist and co-founder of the nonprofit Save Pangolins. “Pangolins stress so easily. And they don’t rebound quickly.”

Most pangolins don’t survive more than 200 days in captivity, he says, let alone breed and give birth.

This hasn’t stopped Chinese businesspeople from trying. In 2013 a Chinese woman named Ma Jin Ru started a pangolin-breeding operation called Olsen East Africa International Investment Co. Ltd., in Kampala, Uganda, with a provisional permit from the Uganda Wildlife Authority and, later, with backing from a government-affiliated Chinese foundation. Not long after, a company called Asia-Africa Pangolin Breeding Research Centre was also registered and licensed in Kampala.

Both companies were raided, in 2016 and 2017 respectively, by Ugandan authorities who had grown suspicious that the facilities were serving as cover for the trafficking of pangolins caught from the wild. The license issued to Olsen East Africa, for example, permitted captive breeding, but investigators suspected the companies were capturing and trading pangolins illegally—without a permit.

Another Asia-Africa Pangolin Breeding Research Centre was established, in Mozambique, in 2016 and later raised suspicions among Mozambican wildlife authorities for the same reasons. In China, investigators from Zhou’s nonprofit tried to visit several of the licensed facilities, all of which denied them access.

Keeping pangolins alive in captivity is a gargantuan task. In addition to their unique diet, they require special care because they’re prone to stomach ulcers and pneumonia, usually brought on by stress. Six zoos and a nonprofit in the United States imported 46 pangolins from Togo in 2016, aiming to study the animals under controlled conditions and establish a self-sustaining population. As of early March, 16 had died.

A hunter from a village in Indonesia says he delivers pangolins to the city of Surabaya on a weekly basis. Pangolins are protected by national laws in the countries where they’re found, and international commercial trade in them is banned. Even so, poaching and trafficking are major threats to pangolins’ survival.
Photograph by Brent Stirton

Pangolins are not hard to find in Cameroon. They’re for sale at outdoor bushmeat markets, where they lie dead next to monkeys and pythons on folding tables. They’re for sale on the sides of the roads, where vendors hold them upside down by the tails for passing drivers to see. They’re a common enough sight for you to think: None of these people seem to be having trouble finding pangolins, so how close to extinction can they be?

The answer is that we don’t have much of an idea how many there are in the first place. Nocturnal, solitary, and shy, they’re difficult to count. But it’s clear from data compiled by Traffic and other nongovernmental organisations that they’re being consumed in and exported from Cameroon and elsewhere in western and central Africa in alarming numbers.

When photographer Brent Stirton and I went to Cameroon last summer, we called up Angelia Young. A South African living in Yaoundé, the capital, with her husband and their three kids, she was arranging to open Cameroon’s first pangolin rescue center. Young took us to a restaurant in the Bastos neighborhood, home to embassies and expats. She handed us menus. Listed above the couscous, plantains, and green beans were porcupine, antelope, and pangolin.

This was an ordinary menu for any restaurant in the city, Young said. Bushmeat is popular in Cameroon, where many prefer it to meat from domestic livestock. Earlier, when we’d visited a market in a rural town where a young woman was preparing a pangolin dish to sell, I’d asked her why she cooks it.

“Why not?” she’d said. “It’s good.”

We didn’t order pangolin (it’s illegal to hunt, sell, or buy pangolins in Cameroon), but we were curious to see whether the restaurant had it on hand. The cook was happy to oblige, bringing out a platter of small gray frozen bodies on a tray. Playing the curious tourists, we gawked and took snapshots.

In Vietnam a sixth-generation traditional medicine practitioner demonstrates how he prepares herbs to mix with the dried pangolin scales his wife is grinding. Scales are believed to be helpful for a range of maladies, but there’s no scientific support for these claims.

Young took us back to her house, which, like all the other homes on her street, was surrounded by a tall, thick wall for security. As we pulled up, I saw a boy in a school uniform, Young’s son Nathan, walking what appeared to be a dog. He was pointing his flashlight at the space between the curb and the neighbor’s wall, keeping an eye on his pet.

When we got closer, I realized that it wasn’t a pooch but a pangolin. The little creature was sniffing and snuffling and scratching the dirt, looking for ants. A pangolin walker, who was supervising the outing, followed close behind, keeping watch over both the animal and the boy. This pangolin was one of a few Young had rescued and was nursing back to health in her house.

“I’m always saving things. Cats, dogs, birds, whatever. I ended up saving four pangolins and not knowing how to take care of them,” she said of her first rescue, in late 2016. “The only person I got to answer the phone was Lisa in Zimbabwe.”

Hywood began sending Young pangolin care packages of medicine and blankets, along with health guidelines for the animals. Their conversations eventually led to the inception of the rehabilitation center Young was preparing to launch—Tikki Hywood Foundation Cameroon.

Young introduced us to eight-year-old Nathan and told him we were going to take a walk to the grocery store around the corner to buy some scallions. We left the pangolin under the walker’s watchful eye, and on the way Nathan talked about how much he loves pangolins and how excited he is to help them. He was clearly proud of his mum.

Next to the outdoor produce stand, a group of Chinese men and women were eating dinner. They greeted us in French, with big smiles. As we began picking over the leafy greens, Young made a small gesture with her chin to the left. Near the side door to the building, behind a low wooden fence, was a chest freezer. On top were several dozen pangolin scales, laid out to dry. Young and Nathan bought some scallions and other vegetables while I milled around to get a better look at the scales, which wasn’t hard: They weren’t hidden.

“Of course it’s shocking to see—it’s in your face,” Young said later. “But for them, it’s nothing. You’ll see it everywhere.”

Pangolins | Saving The World's Most Trafficked Mammal

A major stash of pangolin scales would be smuggled into Cameroon soon, investigators with the Last Great Ape Organization, an NGO, told us during our visit. The group, which helps governments with wildlife law enforcement, had been tracking these smugglers for more than a year and knew that investigators would have a chance to break up this supply chain when the men drove into the port city of Douala with their haul.

Sure enough, right after I left the country, police and wildlife officials intercepted the shipment and arrested six people. The pangolin scales had arrived by truck from the Central African Republic, where it’s likely that traffickers had amassed them from many smaller-scale traders there, as well as from traders in Cameroon and the Democratic Republic of the Congo. The plan, said Eric Kaba Tah, of Last Great Ape, was to drive the shipment to Douala, where the smugglers would sell it up a level on the supply chain. Often, the next destination for the scales would be Nigeria, Tah said, then on to China, Malaysia, or Vietnam.

“More and more we are seeing wildlife products leave the central African subregion, passing through Cameroon to Nigeria, where traffickers believe wildlife law enforcement is not as strong,” Tah said.

It helps traffickers that Africa-to-Asia smuggling routes already exist for other wildlife products. Shipments of pangolin scales have been discovered alongside ivory, hippo teeth, and other illicit animal parts.

The organized criminal networks that move ivory also move pangolin scales, according to the Centre for Advanced Defence Studies, a Washington, D.C.-based research group that focuses on illicit networks, including organised wildlife crime. Such crimes are typically associated with money laundering, tax fraud, illegal arms possession, and other offences.

Save Vietnam’s Wildlife is caring for this youngster until it’s strong enough to be released. Although demand for pangolin meat and scales exists in Vietnam, many pangolins rescued there were destined for China, where pharmaceutical companies sell commercial traditional medicines containing scales. Experts say practitioners and buyers must be taught about alternatives in the Chinese medicine pharmacopoeia to reduce demand for these disappearing animals.

China is the biggest consumer of pangolin scales, but it doesn’t have to be that way, says Steve Given, the former associate dean of the American College of Traditional Chinese Medicine, in San Francisco. He has identified at least 125 herbal, mineral, and animal alternatives in the Chinese medicine pharmacopoeia, depending on what a patient needs to treat. “There’s virtually no reason that anyone needs to use chuan shan jia clinically,” he said, referring to pangolin scales by a traditional name.

Western medicine so far has found no evidence that pangolin scales, which consist of keratin, the same material that makes up fingernails, hair, and rhino horn, have any physiological effects on humans. But traditional medicine texts hold that the scales can be effective at treating imbalances in the body, such as “blood stasis,” a condition that can bring on a stabbing or severe pain and may be associated with menstrual disorders, trouble with lactation, and arthritis.

As long as millions of people turn to traditional medicine for relief—and that number is likely to increase because traditional Chinese medicine is set to become an official part of the World Health Organization’s medical compendium—educating health care providers and patients about alternatives will be an important way to protect pangolins from extinction, Given says.

Back in Cameroon, Young said she was planning to release three pangolins into the wild and invited Stirton and me to come along. Two of the pangolins had been found in a garage, and one surrendered by a woman who received it as a gift. As we bumped along an unpaved road, I thought about the pangolins curled in boxes in the back of the car. They were getting quite a ride. The roads were too washed out to go to the regular release site, so we stopped at an open field instead.

As we walked a few yards into the field, Young warned us to watch out for the biting flies that transmit a parasite that can grow into a worm in your eye. While I worried about that, she set the first pangolin on the ground. It walked into the tall grass and disappeared. We saw the tops of the grass blades rustle a bit—and that was that. Within 15 minutes, the other two pangolins also had been set free. It felt anticlimactic to say the least.

On the return drive, I asked Young about a bushmeat market we’d passed on the way out. It had porcupines for sale, and there were a handful of pangolin scales drying nearby. Wasn’t it likely that the pangolins she’d just released would soon be hunted too?

Yes, she said, it’s very possible. “It’s bittersweet, letting them go. There’s no security.” Nonetheless, she added, it’s a second chance. Maybe they’ll reproduce before they’re caught again, contributing a few more pangolin babies to the ever dwindling population. Every pangolin counts, she said.

Senior Editor Rachael Bale’s story on trafficking of helmeted hornbills appeared in September 2018. Brent Stirton was named the 2017 Wildlife Photographer of the Year for his 2016 rhino coverage.

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Wildlife Watch is an investigative reporting project between National Geographic Society and National Geographic Partners focusing on wildlife exploitation. Read more Wildlife Watch stories here, and learn more about National Geographic Society’s nonprofit mission at nationalgeographic.org. Send tips, feedback, and story ideas to ngwildlife@natgeo.com.

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