Skin and Bones

NOTICE: S&B is taking a break. We will be back with a revamp mid 2019! Unravelling the Illegal and controversial industry that threatens global biodiversity.

Whenever I mention pangolins the response is usually "A what? penguin? No? What is a pangolin?" Fair enough, these small scaly insectivores historically have not received much press, besides being totally unique as the world's only scaled mammal and the inspiration behind the Sandshrew Pokémon. Their time in the limelight is now here, but perhaps not for the best reasons, as they earn themselves the title of 'The World's Most Trafficked Mammal.' 

hunted for

  • SCALES - Traditional Medicine, breast milk quality, cure for cancer and fever reduction.
  • MEAT - Considered a delicacy and presented live at restaurants to be slaughtered at the table to ensure a fresh meal. 
  • BLOOD - Added to rice wine and sold as an Aphrodisiac.


Asian African
Sunda Pangolin
Manis javanica
Critically Endangered
Black-bellied Pangolin
Phataginus tetradactyla
Indian Pangolin
Manis crassicaudata
White-bellied Pangolin
Phataginus tricuspis
Philippine Pangolin
Manis culionensis
Giant Ground Pangolin
Smutsia gigantea
Chinese Pangolin
Manis pentadactyla
Critically Endangered
Temminick's Ground

Smutsia temmickii
Wildlife rapid rescue team and a rescued pangolin Credit:  Wildlife Alliance

Wildlife rapid rescue team and a rescued pangolin Credit: Wildlife Alliance

"Dead and alive, fresh and frozen, gutted, skinned, disguised as fish or snakes and in loads weighing as much as 20 tons. Before selling them the traffickers frequently pump their stomachs full of gravel or rice starch, or inject water between their scales and flesh, to increase their weight and hence their value." -Tactics explained by Nguyen Van Thai, Executive director, Save Vietnam's Wildlife.

Source: IUCN SSC Pangolin specialist group and Challender et al. 2015

The early 90s is an era known for fashion disasters, and unfortunately pangolin leather boots and shoes were the craze of the decade; tens of thousands of pangolins were legally exported (under their CITES Appendix II listing) to Japan, Mexico and the US. Plus the demand in the Chinese traditional medicine market was roaring. The harvest of 160'000 pangolins a year secured the species commercial extinction across forests in China and Viet Nam.  Trade then turned to other Asian ranges to fill the demand and industrial quantities of pangolins from neighboring countries began arriving on Chinese shores.

Pangolin scales, Credit:  Paul Hilton for Wildaid

Pangolin scales, Credit: Paul Hilton for Wildaid

With sales out of control, CITES was forced to reevaluate pangolin protection; in 2000, a zero export quota was placed upon three of the four Asian species (the fourth, Philippine pangolin, was further protected in 2007), effectively banning international trade in wild-caught Asian species. This did little to slow the trade and still large quantities of illegal caught wild Asian pangolins were shipped and smuggled internationally. In September 2016 during the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species CoP17, with worrying statistics that one million specimens had been poached in the last decade and in danger from extinction, pangolins were the animals on every bodies mind. NGOs, conservationists and the public demanded stronger protection and the governments obliged. All eight species received the highest grade of international protection under CITES and were placed on Appendix I. Even though across border trade is illegal, nationally legal quotas (of 25 tonnes of scales) still exist in China, where the scales are used in hospitals to respect medical traditions.

Poaching and trade is illegal in Viet Nam, but, it is not uncommon for law enforcement officers to sell their confiscated loot right back to the illicit traders. It was not until Government decree No 160/ND-CP was actioned in January 2014, that by law animals rescued from wildlife traffickers, must be set free if they are in good health or handled over to rescue centres.

Unfortunately, even with increased protection, it does not stop there, as illegal trade continues and Asian populations are decimated, Africa is the new harvesting ground, where currently there are no trade restrictions. Poaching syndicates are now crossing continents to profit off of blood, meat and keratin scales.

"Sadly most law-enforcement agencies don’t view pangolins as a high priority. Basically we either increase enforcement or kiss pangolins goodbye" Chris Shepherd, regional director for south-east Asia, TRAFFIC.

Smuggled on the back of a truck heading across the border from Laos into Vietnam  . Credit  :  Christopher Newsom

Smuggled on the back of a truck heading across the border from Laos into Vietnam. Credit: Christopher Newsom

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