Endangered pangolin deserves same attention as rhinos

Vietnam and China driving illegal trade of pangolin scales and meat, say experts in approach to World Pangolin Day

Forget Chinese New Year. February’s most notable calendar event is still to come: this Saturday marks the second Annual World Pangolin Day. 

It’s a creature worth celebrating for its exotic appearance alone. With its scaly body, long snout and elongated tongue, the pangolin – which most people have never heard of – looks a little like a cute extra from an Alien movie.
But it’s facing very terrestrial threats, as Jeremy Hance describes in an in-depth article on Illegal trade for food and medicine, fuelled by demand in Vietnam and China, combined with destruction of forest habitats across south-east Asia, is driving the pangolin towards extinction.
The repurcussions go beyond a single species: pangolins play an important role in the ecosystem, providing pest control and improving soil quality. As explained on, they use their large claws to burrow for shelter and dig up ant and termite nests for food, mixing up and getting air into the soil in the process.
As the scale of the threat becomes clear, the pangolin’s plight is slowly gaining more attention. But still too little is known about the elusive species or how to protect it – something pangolin experts blame in part on a skewed conservation agenda, as Hance explains:
It’s perhaps not a surprise that pangolins are little known by the public, since scientists are also in the dark. Nocturnal and notoriously shy, pangolins are rarely seen let alone studied…Still there’s another reason why this animal is little-known: government and big NGO ambivalence.
Conservation actions are primarily focused on large mammals (generally the charismatic species) and ignore the pressing issues of small mammals and lower profile species," says Ambika Khatiwada, who is studying the Chinese pangolin in Nepal. "The government and other organizations working in the field […] do not have adequate plans for the conservation of small mammals which has resulted in limited information regarding ecology, threats and other conservation issues related to pangolins."
Rhinos and tigers tend to get more attention in discussions about harmful wildlife trading. But many of the issues are the same, Rhishja Cota-Larson, founder and director of Project Pangolin, tells Mongabay. Like rhino horn, pangolin scales are touted as a treatment for a range of ailments by some traditional Chinese medicine advocates. And, like rhino horn, the main culprits driving the trade are Vietnam and China:
"The plight of the pangolin is similar to rhinos in that their most distinguishing physical characteristic is also driving them down a road to extinction," explains Cota-Larson. "Pangolin scales are touted as a treatment for all sorts of things: To promote menstruation, promote lactation, to treat rheumatism and arthritis, to reduce swelling and discharge pus."
Cota-Larson adds that the "the medicinal efficacy of pangolin scales is unproven." In fact, it may be that consuming pangolin scales is little more beneficial than eating one’s own fingernails, since both are made of keratin.
Now there are even claims that pangolin scales are effective against cancer. But this is a common story that appears to shows up whenever illegal traders want to increase demand and hence prices, trusting that the sick and the desperate will be willing to pay anything.
Pangolins are also valued for their meat. A chinadialogue article published in December looked at how eating habits in South China are pushing a range of animals to extinction. The pangolin is high on this list.
Though the pangolin is officially a protected species in China, a taste for delicacies like pangolin fetus and a failure by local authorities to crack down on illegal wildlife markets, sustain a booming underground trade.
China is making progress tackling rhino-horn smuggling, as discussed on chinadialogue recently, and a new campaign to be launched later this month by conservation NGO WildAid in cahoots with Chinese celebrities like Yao Ming should strengthen the anti-ivory cause. Can pangolins now get the same treatment?