No hiding place

PANGOLINS are a smuggler’s dream. For defence, and when asleep, they roll themselves up into spheres, scales on the outside, to thwart any predator. That makes them easy to handle and pack. And handled and packed they have been, in enormous numbers. The International Union for Conservation of Nature, a worldwide wildlife-preservation organisation, reckons that more than 1m pangolins were traded illegally from their African and Asian homelands over the decade to 2014. That may be a conservative estimate. A paper published last year in Conservation Letters calculates the number of pangolins hunted in central Africa alone as between 400,000 and 2.7m a year. Based on statistics such as these it seems likely that pangolins, of which there are eight species, four African and four Asian, are the most trafficked type of animal in the world.

Some are consumed locally. That is not necessarily illegal, for laws vary from place to place. International trade, though, is a different matter. Early in 2017 CITES, the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species, listed all eight pangolins as part of what is known as Appendix 1. This means signatories to the convention (which most countries are) cannot permit them to be imported or exported.

Most of those that are, nevertheless, exported illegally from their homelands end up in China and Vietnam. In these countries pangolins’ meat is a treat and their scales are used in folk medicine, even though those scales are made of keratin, the same substance as hair and fingernails, and thus have no medicinal value. Pangolin scales fetch as much as $750 a kilogram in China. A 12-tonne stash of them, the world’s biggest seizure, was found last summer by the authorities in Shenzhen. That alone represents 20,000-30,000 animals. And the African end of the operation is equally big business. In 2015 two tonnes of scales were found in a raid conducted at Entebbe airport in Uganda. Between 2010 and 2015 there were 1,270 seizures of pangolins or parts of pangolins around the world, in 67 countries and territories.

Cracking down on poachers and traders is difficult, particularly in poor places. Even when governments are willing, conservation agencies often lack the resources, such as vehicles (and, indeed, the fuel to put in them) needed to patrol forests and investigate trafficking networks. And willingness is not always there. Such antipoaching and antitrafficking laws as do exist frequently go unenforced.

Part of the blame lies with ignorance. Awareness of pangolins is patchy. They are nocturnal and shy, and thus rarely feature on tourists’ tick-lists. That makes them a low priority, even to game-management authorities who know they are there. Often, though, those authorities do not. Uganda, for example, is home to all four African species of pangolin. But until last year, when a pangolin-awareness initiative, run by the Tikki Hywood Foundation, a Zimbabwean charity, began explaining the animals to local wildlife rangers, many of those rangers did not know what a pangolin was or what to do if they found one in someone’s possession.

The Hywood Foundation’s initiative is part of a larger effort in Uganda, sponsored by the Uganda Wildlife Authority (UWA), the government’s conservation agency. Now that pangolins are on the UWA’s radar, it has stepped up intelligence and investigative work on poachers and traffickers of the animal. Sniffer dogs, trained with support from the African Wildlife Foundation, a Kenyan charity, have also been deployed at Entebbe. Dogs can detect pangolins, as well as ivory, rhino horn and other contraband wildlife products.

At the consumption end of the trafficking routes, too, things are starting to happen. In China, for example, Jackie Chan, a film star who was instrumental in bringing about that country’s recent ban on the sale of elephant ivory, has thrown his weight behind the pangolin. A video he made last year, which depicts him training animated pangolins to fight poachers, has been viewed more than 12m times.

In theory, eating pangolin meat (along with that of many other wild species) is already illegal in China—not for conservation reasons, but as a reaction to the outbreak of SARS, a fatal respiratory disease, that happened there in 2002. In practice, the law is ignored. But if the authorities chose to enforce it then the market for pangolin flesh would shrink a lot.

Persuading people to stop using the animals’ scales may be harder. The ivory ban does suggest Chinese attitudes towards wildlife are changing. But how long such changes will take to trickle down to the unfortunate pangolin remains to be seen.