China seizes massive amount of illegal pangolin scales. Are conservation efforts working?

China's seizure of more than 3 tons of pangolin scales is the largest ever discovered by authorities who are increasingly on the lookout for the illegally poached creatures.

Firdia Lisnawati/AP/File
A pangolin carries its baby at a Bali zoo in Bali, Indonesia.

Chinese customs officials say they have seized more than 3 tons of illegally trafficked pangolin scales from a single boat that arrived in a port in Shanghai. The contraband was hidden among a shipment of wood products from Nigeria.

Pangolins are highly endangered, largely because of human poaching. Despite a crackdown on the shipment of their scales and meat in the international community earlier this year, their meat and scales continue to fetch extremely high prices on the black market.

Pangolins are unusual creatures: They are small, slow-moving nocturnal anteaters that curl into a ball like an armadillo in order to protect themselves with their hard scales. But while their scaly armor serves the mammals well in the wild, it has made them a target for hunters in Asia who sell the scales as a cure-all on the black market. The recent seizure in Shanghai is the largest single shipment ever discovered by authorities, but it is unclear whether the size of the illegal cargo means that efforts to curb pangolin hunting are failing, or if the search for illegal pangolin products is simply becoming more effective. Either way, conservation experts say much work is still needed to restore the pangolin's declining population.

Pangolins can be found in Africa and Asia, and have been called the most-poached animals in the world. The mammals are currently listed as critically endangered because of hunting, according to the World Wildlife Fund. Poachers sell pangolin meat, considered a delicacy in some parts of the world, and their crushed scales, which are used in folk remedies for all manner of ailments ranging from arthritis to cancer. Despite the supposed healing properties ascribed to the creatures, their scales are actually made of a protein called keratin, the same substance that makes up human fingernails and rhinoceros horns, none of which have healing abilities.

In light of these facts, United Nations wildlife officials voted earlier this year to ban trade on all eight species of pangolin, as the Monitor reported in September. While the vote was hailed by environmental experts as a strong step in the right direction, many also expressed concerns at the time that merely making international trafficking illegal would not be enough to save the creature, especially since many individual countries still allow hunting and trade of pangolin within their own borders.

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

Based on reported seizures of meat and scales between 2011 and 2013, the World Wildlife Fund estimates that 116,990 to 233,980 pangolins had been killed during that span of time, not including scales and meat that were able to slip past the authorities. Conservationists estimate that more than 1 million pangolins have been killed in the past decade alone.

Because of the inherently shady nature of pangolin trade, it is hard to say whether the recent UN vote has been effective in slowing the practice, though it has undoubtedly made it more difficult to transport the illegal cargo across borders. But in order to save the animal completely, there will likely need to be heightened cooperation between businesses, government, conservation groups, and community initiatives where the poaching takes place. While concerted efforts to decrease illegal hunting of animals like sharks and rhinos has met with some success over the past few years, pangolins likely won't be in the clear without years or decades of hard work and educating potential customers of pangolin scales about their lack of real medicinal properties.

"Poachers who take ivory are increasingly getting caught with pangolin scales as well," Aurélie Flore Koumba Pambo, scientific coordinator at Gabon's national parks, told The New York Times in September. "If we continue to postpone strengthening of pangolin protection, we will find ourselves in a position where all African pangolin species disappear from our ecosystems forever."

The 3 tons of scales in the recent Shanghai seizure would account for 5,000 to 7,500 poached pangolins by itself, and would have fetched more than $2 million on the black market. An investigation into the origin of the shipment is ongoing.

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