Trade ban: Shy and elusive pangolin finally gets protection

UN wildlife officials have voted to ban trade in all eight species of Asian pangolins. The creature is prized for its meat and scales, which are used for medicinal purposes. 

Firdia Lisnawati/AP/File
A pangolin carries its baby at a zoo in Bali, Indonesia, in June 2014. Delegates at a UN wildlife conference have voted to ban trade in all eight species of Asian pangolins.

The United Nation’s Convention on International Trade of Endangered Species (CITES) ruled today to ban all global trade of the pangolin, a scaly mammal that has been poached to the brink of extinction. 

All eight species of Asian and African pangolin were approved for Appendix 1 protection, which bans all commercial cross-border movement of either the animal or parts of the animal except in "exceptional circumstances."

"Giving pangolins full protection under CITES will eliminate any question about legality of trade, making it harder for criminals to traffic them and increasing the consequences for those who do," Ginette Hemley of the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) told Reuters.

While genetically unrelated, the pangolin looks similar to an armadillo, with a hard shell of keratin scales that allow it to curl up into a ball when threatened. The 12- to 39 inches-long creatures are near-sighted, and typically stay within their burrows except to hunt for food at night.

The shy species has earned its not-so-enviable title of "Most Poached Mammal in the World." An estimated 1 million pangolins have been killed in the past decade.

Like some other illegal animal trading – ivory, for example – the demand for pangolin comes largely from Asia, where its meat is considered a delicacy and its scales are used in traditional medicines. Because of a decrease in the native Asian population of pangolins and an increase in the number of Asian workers in rural Africa, the number of pangolins exported from the continent has risen.

From 2013 to today, 20 tons of pangolin scales coming from as many as 39,000 animals were seized from illegal shipments that originated in Africa.

"Hopefully this will be followed by increased resources and attention being devoted to saving this well armored – but utterly defensive – and wholly unique species," Jeff Flocken, the North American regional director at the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW), told Reuters.

Colman O'Criodain, an expert with the WWF conservation group, added that the next step will be for individual countries to enact similar bans so that trafficking does not simply continue within national borders.

Issues pertaining to more high profile wildlife trafficking issues will also be up for debate at the CITES conference, which ends Oct. 5. The conference will discuss a controversial proposal to loosen ivory trade laws, which aims to protect elephants by driving down the demand, as well as a bid by Switzerland to sell rhino horn internationally.

The committee will also consider added protections for lions, sharks, sting rays, and many other animals, such as the pangolin, that are unfamiliar to most people.

"There are literally dozens to hundreds of species being considered here that you or I would probably not even recognize," Dan Ashe, the director of the US Fish and Wildlife Service, told The Associated Press. "That's the magic of this convention."

The pangolin decision is expected to be approved at a plenary session next week, according to the Associated Press.

Material from the Associated Press and Reuters contributed to this report.

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