The pangolin: the world’s most trafficked animal

When you’ve got anything from an upset stomach to a severe fever, you’re probably more likely to reach for prescribed medication than you are for a generous spoonful of ground rhinoceros horn or pangolin scale. However, this isn’t the case for everyone, which has led to a rapid decline in both pangolin and rhinoceros populations.

Wildlife trafficking is the illegal collection and distribution of animals. One of the factors that maintains its presence on an international scale is the demand for animal products, ranging from decorative purposes to traditional medicine. According to a report by the World Wide Fund for Nature, “blame for the issue is passed back and forth between source and consumer countries and there is a lack of collaboration, coordination, and accountability between the two.” The World Wildlife Fund (WWF) counters the issue largely through their joint programme TRAFFIC, a non-governmental wildlife trade monitoring network with a goal to “help reduce the pressure of illegal and unsustainable wildlife trade on biodiversity.”

On an international level, beyond initiatives from organisations such as the WWF, policy response has risen to fight the issue. There are a number of international control measures, one of which is the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITIES). During the CITIES’ ongoing conference that started on the 24th September and will run until 5th October, countries voted to ban trade in all eight species of pangolin across Africa and Asia. The conference declared them to be endangered to the point of near extinction.

Looking at the numbers, it’s clear to see why the committee called the ban. In 2016 alone, authorities have already seized more than 18,000 tonnes of scales from poaching of these small, armoured ant-eaters across 19 countries. Considering experts have estimated that it takes three to four pangolins to make up a kilogramme of scales, that’s quite a chunk out of the population of an animal that only produces one offspring per breeding female a year. According to the BBC’s recent look at the pangolin trade, one million pangolins have been poached in the last decade, and researchers believe that the trafficking of pangolins alone makes up roughly 20 per cent of all illegal trade worldwide.

While pangolins have been declared the most trafficked animal in the world, rhinoceros populations have also been suffering from serious decline since 2007. According to the Species Survival Commission’s report from the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), the number of African rhinoceros killed by poachers went up for the sixth year in a row. In 2007, poachers killed 13 rhinoceros for their horns in South Africa. That number increased to 1,175 rhinos in 2015, which averages to three rhinoceros killed for their horns per day. The IUCN Red List now identifies three species of rhinoceros as critically endangered, and efforts to combat their loss have extended from the usual organisations such as the WWF to less traditional efforts such as Twitter account @savetherhino, which keeps followers updated on poaching reports and donation opportunities.

While many are upset by the decline of animal populations due to human involvement, it could be said that the killing is not totally illogical. Both rhino horn and pangolin scales are made up of keratin, the same material that makes up human fingernails and skin, and their use in medicine (particularly Chinese and African traditional disciplines) dates back thousands of years. Both ancient Greek and Persian cultures believed in the power of rhino horn to purify water from the effect of poison, and there may be an element of truth to that, as many poisons do react chemically with keratin. More recently, Andreia Vasconcelos and Artur Cavaco-Paulo of the University of Minho published The Use of Keratin in Biomedical Applications in November 2012. They noted that “extracted keratin proteins have an intrinsic ability to self-assemble and polymerise into fibrous gels and scaffolds… leading to their development as scaffolds of biomedical application.” This suggests that keratin can be beneficial in a medicinal sense. With this in mind, there seems to be more to animal trafficking than simply for monetary gain, but it is clear that it is causing irreparable damage to the pangolin and rhinoceros population.

Image: David Brossard

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