Economy of scale
An in-depth global investigation into wildlife trafficking sent this writer in search of hunters and the hunted
In the West, the world’s eight species of pangolins have various names and nicknames — scaly anteaters, artichokes with legs, walking pine cones — but in Vietnam, they’re known simply as tê tê. They are the world’s only mammal with true scales, but their second and more recent claim to fame is as the world’s most highly trafficked mammal.
Yet, until recently, even some ecologists weren’t aware of the pangolin’s existence. The situation has since improved vastly: these days you’d be hard pressed to find a wildlife researcher who isn’t familiar with the pangolin’s plight, thanks to an increasing number of scientific papers and conference talks warning of their impending doom.
Pangolin — which has been illegal to eat in China since 1989 — is still served there, although much less overtly than in Vietnam. If caught, Chinese pangolineating patrons face up to 10 years in jail but, for some, the risk isn’t a deterrent.
In February 2017, for example, a Shenzhen woman dubbed by media the “Pangolin Princess” was brought in for questioning after social media users drew attention to photos of “pangolin blood fried rice”, “eight animal stew” and “caterpillar fungus and pangolin soup” that she had posted on Weibo,
China’s version of Twitter. She bragged that the dishes were so nourishing they made her nose bleed.
The hostess at the fancy Ho Chi Minh City restaurant sat us at a street-facing table and handed over massive, leather-bound menus. Opening mine, I wanted to quickly paw through to see what kind of wildlife horrors might be advertised, but I forced myself to slowly survey the options like a normal customer. I smiled vacantly, glancing over the all the usual suspects of chicken, pork, duck and beef, along with various noodles and rice dishes. But then, with the turn of a page, I hit the mother lode.
In the very back, complete with photographs, were several pages advertising a menagerie of wild animals. Fried bats were pictured next to the bony legs and rat-like tail of a roasted civet on a platter adorned with greens; on the next page, a boiled pangolin lay splayed on a plate in a morbid belly flop. Some photos, rather than depicting prepared dishes, took the even less subtle approach of displaying the actual animal in question: a porcupine, two grinning bears, a bright green lizard, a turtle, and more. My companion translated a few of the offerings, including pangolin stewed with Chinese herbs, snake-meat sausage, fried tortoise viscera, and bear paw cooked with ginger (24 hours’ notice required).
I was dumbfounded. I hadn’t known what to expect, but an illustrated menu of illegal products handed out to anyone who walks through the door was definitely not it.
Quóc Trung, the restaurant manager, told us: “Exotic meat is extremely popular. Civets and pangolins especially. Tortoises and snakes sell well, too. I think civet served with sticky rice is the most delicious.”
When asked about the exorbitant price for pangolins, he explained that it stems from the fact that they cannot be raised in captivity. “Everyone wants them,” he said. “But only high-class and special guests get to enjoy this animal.” “But why do people want pangolin?” I prodded. “People are willing to pay, not only because the pangolin’s meat is tasty, but also because the pangolin’s scales treat a lot of sicknesses,” he confidently informed me. “The scales are good for the body. They can treat all sorts of things, like back or joint pains. Or if a woman is having trouble lactating, she can take them to help her produce milk.”
Judging by his earnest tone, it did not seem like he was just making this stuff up to push his pangolin products. He believed it — and customers apparently did, too. Those who order a pangolin almost always want to keep their animal’s scales, he told us. The fee patrons pay for their pangolin includes removing, drying, and packing the scales in a doggie bag.
Does the government allow this?
“No,” Quóc smiled slyly. “But we have our sources. We get no problems from the authorities because we have good connections with the police. Although everyone knows it’s banned, we can still advertise it and put the pictures in the menu — we don’t have to worry about anything. Anyway, the demand is so high for these things, we have to supply them.”
The lucky ones
Humans are the greatest threat to pangolins’ survival, but they are also their greatest hope.
Nguyen Van Thái is executive director of Save Vietnam’s Wildlife. Since founding the nonprofit in 2014, Thái has become one of Vietnam’s leading voices for ending the illegal wildlife trade, not the least because he and his colleagues run the country’s only rehabilitation facilities for confiscated pangolins. Unlike Animals Asia’s rescued-bear sanctuaries, however, release back into the wild is always the goal for creatures that find their way to Thái. He doesn’t have the space to keep the thousands of pangolins that would eventually pile up, and they are notoriously difficult to keep alive in captivity. As opposed to the bears, they’ve also not spent decades behind bars, meaning their chances of quickly readjusting to life in the wild are high. As of mid-2017, more than 400 rehabilitated pangolins had been given a second shot at life in the wild, thanks to Thái and his colleagues’ work.
In a couple of days, Thái texted me, he would be returning 46 rescued animals to the forest — the largest pangolin release undertaken to date.
“I am not sure if you have time to join us?”
I booked a ticket to central Vietnam.
At the ranger station, Thái was busy tending to the 46 pangolins in his care, giving them one last meal from the cooler before the big event.
He lifted a crate lid, revealing two scaly brown balls nestled in a bed of hay. Slowly, one of the balls unfurled and out poked a long, pointed face with bulging blueberry eyes; a wet, dog-like nose; and tiny, oddly human ears. The pangolin stuck its snout into the air, sniffing sleepily as Thái filled a small plastic tub with insect mush, which looked like a mixture of red and white quinoa. The pangolins — now both awake — loved it. They buried their pink faces in the bowls like happy puppies.
Thái and his staff continued their rounds, ensuring that each crate was taken care of. As I watched them, I realised that pangolins have very distinct personalities. Some were timid and quivering; others were bold and curious, rearing up on their hind legs to survey the world around them. A few even tried to instigate an escape. They all seemed gentle, however: none attempted to bite, and, when handled, they did not even struggle. If anything, they wrapped their strong, slinky-like bodies around the staff, clinging to them like a toddler in its father’s arms.
The level of trust was shocking, considering what these pangolins had been put through by humans. Most of the animals being released were discovered packed in boxes of ice in the back of a truck. Of the 61 confiscated by the police, 12 died from trauma and injuries, and several more were still recovering back at the pangolarium. The lucky 46 would be divided into three groups, Thái said, each of which would be taken to different parts of the forest so as to spread the pangolin love and ensure the solitary creatures had the best possible start.
It was impossible to say what fate awaited the newly freed pangolins. They might find themselves once again trapped in a hunter’s snare, bound for one of the Ho Chi Minh City restaurants I had visited. Or luck might remain on their side, and they would never see another human again.
“If just one individual survives,” Thái said, “it’s a happy story.”
Over the past decade, more than a million pangolins have been killed in Southeast Asia and China. Under this strain, it didn’t take long for the supply to diminish. The four species of Asian pangolin are now listed as endangered to critically endangered, and traders are looking farther afield. As Dan Challender, chair of the International Union for the Conservation of Nature’s Pangolin Specialist Group, put it: “China depleted its own population, then started to hoover up animals from other countries.”
All four of Africa’s pangolin species are now considered threatened. A 2018 paper revealed that up to 2.7-million pangolins are now killed annually in Africa, primarily to be trafficked to Asia.
✼This is an edited extract from Poached: Inside the dark
world of wildlife trafficking, by Rachel Love Nuwer, published by Scribe, distributed in SA by Jonathan Ball (R315)
Temminck's pangolin, or the ground pangolin, found in SA.