When we hear about the illegal wildlife trade, we think of elephants slaughtered for their ivory tusks, rhinos sedated and their horns brutally removed, or tigers skinned for their pelts and organs. These are sexy animals, animals that appeal to the public eye, animals that can further the cause of anti-trafficking organizations working to preserve wildlife around the globe. They are so very charismatic, after all. But in the midst of this frenzy of public awareness, one animal slips unnoticed into the illegal trade market. It’s fate is dire, it’s species threatened to the brink of extinction, yet it gains far less support than do large fauna suffering at the hands of illegal trade.
Meet the pangolin.
The pangolin is a scale-covered relative of the anteater found in Asia and Africa. Of the seven species that exist, three are found in Asia (India, China, Southeast Asia), and four reside in the African continent south of the Sahara. It is insectivorous, and lives a solitary life, mingling only to reproduce. And, most notably, it is one of the most endangered species in the world today thanks to the high demand for its parts in the illegal wildlife product market. This is the most illegally-trafficked mammal in the world.
Pangolins face a dire threat from illegal trade due to the high demand for their skin, scales, and internal organs in East Asia. The species has long been a staple in Chinese traditional medicine. In Southern China and Vietnam, pangolin meat is considered a delicacy. In Africa, pangolins are a favoured form of bushmeat, and their scales are used in clothing (see below).
But why does the pangolin really matter? Ecologically, it is just another insectivore. But socially, it carries a larger message about our humanity and empathy for creatures that cannot fight for their rights as we can. The pangolin is a smaller, more tangible example of how a small species can fuel an entire market and propagate the trade of other species. If pangolins are allowed to slip into the illegal markets unnoticed, the market grows stronger. The continued poaching of larger wildlife becomes more tangible. Additionally, a continued loss of habitat due to deforestation makes the pangolin more vulnerable to poachers. As the species responsible for deforestation, we owe it to the pangolin to spread awareness about their plight and put more effort into preventing this golden-scaled anteater from facing extinction at the hands of human greed. And if we can push ourselves to save a creature that has few public supporters, then we send out a powerful message that a strong mindset is all it takes to rescue a species from the doorstep of death.