Pro­tect­ing the pan­golin

Sav­ing the world’s most traf­ficked an­i­mal

World of Animals - - What's Inside - Words Vic­to­ria Wil­liams

Open­ing a ship­ping con­tainer, Chi­nese cus­toms of­fi­cers are faced with piles of grain sacks. Sus­pect­ing that the con­tents aren’t what they first seem to be, they slash open a sack to re­veal parts of the most traf­ficked an­i­mal in the world. It’s not ivory or rhino horn: the whole ship­ping con­tainer is full of pan­golin scales.

Pan­golins – eight species of scaly mam­mal from Asia and Africa – are thought to make up 20 per cent of all il­le­gal wildlife trade, but many peo­ple have never heard of them. They’re some­times mis­taken for ar­madil­los, but, while bony plates pro­tect ar­madil­los, pan­golins are the only mam­mals with ker­a­tinised scales.

Both groups are pro­lific dig­gers and curl up to avoid preda­tors (well, the three-banded ar­madillo does) but de­spite their su­per­fi­cial sim­i­lar­i­ties, ar­madil­los are more closely re­lated to anteaters and sloths while the pan­golin’s near­est liv­ing rel­a­tives are the car­ni­vores.

Us­ing the long claws on their front feet, most of these shy an­i­mals dig bur­rows or claw their way into tree hol­lows dur­ing the day. Come night­fall they emerge to search for in­sects; us­ing their strong sense of smell, they sniff out ant and ter­mite nests be­fore break­ing into them and hoover­ing up the res­i­dents with their sticky tongues. The vis­i­ble part of the pan­golin’s tongue is as­ton­ish­ingly long to help it reach the in­sects, but the mus­cle doesn’t end at the top of the throat like ours does; its root is at­tached to bone at the bot­tom of the ribcage.

Pan­golins aren’t very so­cial an­i­mals. They live soli­tary lives for most of the year, only seek­ing each other out to mate. In a break from their usual quiet na­ture, males will use their tails like clubs if con­flict arises over ac­cess to a breed­ing fe­male. Young are born pale and soft and re­main in the bur­row with their mother while their scales harden and darken. At a month old a young pan­golin is ready to ex­pe­ri­ence life above ground, cling­ing to the fe­male as she snuf­fles around. A few months later it’s ready to start eat­ing in­sects and mov­ing around by it­self, but it will re­main with its mother for an­other 18 months un­til it reaches ma­tu­rity and must leave home.

The name ‘pan­golin’ comes from the Malay word peng­gu­lung, mean­ing ‘one who rolls up’. It refers to the an­i­mal’s main form of de­fence – rolling its body into a ball

like a wood­louse and us­ing its tough scales as a shield. With all their vul­ner­a­ble parts tucked away, pan­golins can keep them­selves safe from the sharpest claws and teeth.

Un­for­tu­nately, the pan­golin’s ef­fec­tive de­fence mech­a­nism is one of the rea­sons it’s un­der threat from hu­mans. When faced with trou­ble, its usual re­sponse is to curl into a ball im­me­di­ately; un­able to fight or run away, it can sim­ply be picked up by poach­ers and put into a crate.

Pan­golins and their body parts are sold for a va­ri­ety of uses, from in­gre­di­ents in ex­pen­sive cui­sine to ex­otic pets. De­spite the fact that there’s no ev­i­dence for any health ben­e­fits, pan­golin-based medicine re­mains in high de­mand in Asia as a ‘cure’ for many dis­eases and ail­ments. For some, the en­dan­gered sta­tus of the eight species and the il­le­gal­ity of their trade only makes them more de­sir­able, as be­ing able to buy a pan­golin dish dis­plays wealth.

In some African cul­tures, pan­golins are con­sumed to pro­mote long lives and used in rit­u­als when lay­ing foun­da­tions for a new home. Their eyes and tails are thought to cure klep­to­ma­nia and their tho­raxes are be­lieved to stop con­vul­sions. Var­i­ous body parts are turned into charms to pre­vent rain, ward off evil spir­its and to at­tract good for­tune for farm­ers and those em­bark­ing on new busi­ness ven­tures.

To smug­gle them across bor­ders, poach­ers will freeze pan­golins whole or boil them to re­move the scales. Some­times they’re de­liv­ered alive so that they can be fat­tened up fur­ther, sold as ex­otic pets or brought to a diner’s ta­ble be­fore they’re killed to prove their fresh­ness.

Pan­golin trade might have ex­ploded in the last few decades, but it’s by no means a new oc­cur­rence. In 1820, King Ge­orge III was pre­sented with gifts of a hel­met and coat made from In­dian pan­golin scales from the gover­nor

“Pan­golins re­main lit­tle-known crea­tures in many parts of the world, and peo­ple won’t help or care about an an­i­mal if they don’t know that it ex­ists”

gen­eral of the East In­dia Com­pany. Back then it was a hard task to trans­port a pan­golin or pan­golin parts over a long dis­tance, but im­proved tech­nol­ogy has al­lowed poach­ers and traders to build large net­works and move their goods across whole con­ti­nents.

In 1975, the Con­ven­tion on In­ter­na­tional Trade in En­dan­gered Species (CITES) added all eight species of pan­golin to its ap­pen­dices of reg­u­lated an­i­mals. At the time, three species were placed in Ap­pendix III – the cat­e­gory with the least strict reg­u­la­tions – four in Ap­pendix II and just one in Ap­pendix I. By 2016, all eight had been moved to Ap­pendix I, ac­knowl­edg­ing the very real risk of their ex­tinc­tion in the near fu­ture and the ur­gent need for their pro­tec­tion. All in­ter­na­tional trade was banned, but the high de­mand has cre­ated a thriv­ing black mar­ket and made pan­golin poach­ing a lu­cra­tive busi­ness.

The traf­fick­ing of pan­golins was once lim­ited to Asia, but in­ter­con­ti­nen­tal smug­gling from Africa to Asia has in­creased in re­cent years to meet the de­mand and to com­pen­sate for the fact that the en­dan­gered an­i­mals are get­ting harder to find.

En­force­ment of the ban is dif­fi­cult; pan­golins and their body parts are seized when they’re dis­cov­ered, but poach­ers and traf­fick­ers are of­ten able to hide the an­i­mals among le­gal goods or find routes that avoid en­coun­ters with any of­fi­cials. While most rangers are de­voted to the ar­eas they pro­tect and the an­i­mals that live there, there have been re­ports of some catch­ing pan­golins and sell­ing them to traders.

Sav­ing pan­golins is a daunt­ing task given the vo­ra­cious de­mand for the an­i­mals in Asia, but it’s a mis­sion sev­eral or­gan­i­sa­tions are de­ter­mined to take on. Pro­mot­ing aware­ness is a key part of their work. Knowl­edge of the plight of pan­golins is spread­ing, but they re­main lit­tle­known crea­tures in many parts of the world, and peo­ple won’t help or care about an an­i­mal if they don’t know that it ex­ists.

One group ded­i­cated to the pro­tec­tion of these vul­ner­a­ble an­i­mals is the pas­sion­ate band of min­ders at the Tikki Hy­wood Trust in Zim­babwe. Known as the Pan­golin Men, the min­ders each pro­vide round-the­clock care for a sin­gle in­jured or res­cued pan­golin. When all the feed­ing, car­ry­ing and walk­ing has helped them back into good shape they’re re­leased into the wild. This

doesn’t mean the min­ders can rest though. With so many pan­golins be­ing caught by poach­ers and then seized by the au­thor­i­ties, new an­i­mals are al­ways ar­riv­ing in need of care – the bat­tle to save them never ends.

Pan­golins are hard to keep alive in cap­tiv­ity, so con­ser­va­tion in their nat­u­ral habi­tat is cru­cial if they’re to sur­vive. In­creased num­bers of highly trained rangers would go some way to keep­ing pan­golins and their neigh­bours safe; poach­ers of­ten hunt other vul­ner­a­ble an­i­mals like rhi­nos, so they are a grave dan­ger to the whole habi­tat.

In case traf­fick­ing wasn’t dam­ag­ing their pop­u­la­tions enough, many of the species are also un­der threat from de­for­esta­tion and land de­vel­op­ment. The Chi­nese pan­golin’s range in east­ern China was found to have shrunk by 52.2 per cent be­tween 1970 and 2016 be­cause of the in­tro­duc­tion of new roads. Not only do the roads cut up the pan­golin’s habi­tat, they also give poach­ers eas­ier ac­cess to the forests. Chi­nese pan­golins have been forced to re­treat to moun­tain­ous ar­eas and live at higher al­ti­tudes to sur­vive. The sci­en­tists be­hind the study have urged the Chi­nese Govern­ment to ex­pand na­ture re­serves and give the pan­golins bet­ter pro­tec­tion.

In re­cent years, sci­en­tists and con­ser­va­tion or­gan­i­sa­tions have been meet­ing at sum­mits and con­fer­ences to dis­cuss pan­golins, share their re­search and de­cide what should be done. Sup­port from the pub­lic is grow­ing as more peo­ple learn about pan­golins, and pres­sure is in­creas­ing on gov­ern­ments and pol­icy mak­ers to help them. The threats these an­i­mals face are huge and nu­mer­ous, so com­bin­ing forces is likely to be the best way of tack­ling the prob­lem and ul­ti­mately pro­vid­ing these beau­ti­ful bug-eaters with a fu­ture.

“Sav­ing pan­golins is a daunt­ing task given the vo­ra­cious

de­mand for them”


Above Over­lap­ping scales make eat­ing a pan­golin al­most im­pos­si­ble for even the fiercest of preda­tors, as this lion is dis­cov­er­ing

Above Also known as the black-bel­lied pan­golin, the long-tailed pan­golin is na­tive to western and cen­tral Africa

right Pan­golins curlup at the first sign of dan­ger,so poach­ers can sim­ply pickthem up

Above If they’re smug­gled live, pan­golins can be fat­tened up be­fore be­ing sold

Above Known as the Pan­golin Men, this group of vol­un­teers is ded­i­cated to sav­ing and re­ha­bil­i­tat­ing pan­golins

Young pan­golins taken from their moth­ers to be sold as pets need spe­cial­istcare to sur­vive

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