07:07 - Source: CNN
Inside the illegal wildlife trade

Story highlights

IUCN says all eight species of pangolin are threatened by illegal trade

The scale-covered mammals are traded for their scales and meat

John Sutter reported on the pangolin trade in Southeast Asia earlier this year

Sutter: The pangolin's survival may rest on it being seen as "sassy and cool"

Editor’s Note: John D. Sutter is a columnist for CNN Opinion and creator of CNN’s Change the List project. Follow him on Twitter, Facebook or Google+. E-mail him at ctl@cnn.com. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.

CNN —  

The world finally is starting to wake up to the plight of the pangolin – an awesomely introverted, scale-covered mammal that’s capable off fending of lions but gets snatched right up by poachers.

The International Union for Conservation of Nature said this week it considers all eight species of pangolin to be threatened with extinction because of the black market trade in its meat and scales.

“In the 21st century we really should not be eating species to extinction,” Jonathan Baillie, co-chair of the IUCN’s pangolin specialist group, said in a statement.

“There is simply no excuse for allowing this illegal trade to continue.”

Related: The most trafficked mammal you’ve never heard of

John D. Sutter
Edythe McNamee/CNN
John D. Sutter

The IUCN, which publishes the well-known “Red List” of threatened species, now estimates more than 1 million pangolins were poached in the last decade. That’s a staggering number – pangolins already were thought to be the most trafficked mammals in the world – and an important reminder that the world could lose these amazing little creatures if more isn’t done, immediately, to protect them.

When I went to Vietnam and Indonesia earlier this year to report undercover on the pangolin market, I came across a number of reasons the trade continues unabated.

Among them:

1. Conservation groups don’t make the pangolin a priority. They focus on the “charismatic” animals – panda, rhino, tigers – instead of these awkward introverts. The pangolin needs a serious PR campaign in order to survive – and an army of supporters who recognize how incredibly cool it is. To that effect, here are some fun pangolin facts:

2. Governments in Southeast Asia and China have been slow to crack down on the illegal trade. I found pangolin meat easily available on restaurant menus in Hanoi, Vietnam, and am told by activists that little is done to stop pangolin consumption.

3. It’s not just about busting the poachers. For this trade to end, there need to be incentives for poachers to stop poaching – as well as for pangolin consumers, primarily in Vietnam and China, to stop eating pangolin meat as a delicacy. I’m thankful to CNN readers for donating more than $17,000 toward the creation of a pangolin public service announcement in Hanoi, Vietnam. Similar efforts must be made in China. Source countries, including Indonesia, must create jobs and other opportunities for people who now work in the black market. Low-level poachers are trying to buy milk for their kids, not get rich. And with better economic opportunities, they would leave the trade.

Related: 7 ways to save the pangolin

An action plan from the IUCN – cleverly named “Scaling Up Pangolin Conservation” – outlines other helpful steps that should be taken, including more pangolin science.

“Our global strategy to halt the decline of the world’s pangolins needs to be urgently implemented,” Dan Challender, co-chair of the IUCN’s pangolin group, said in a statement. “A vital first step is for the Chinese and Vietnamese governments to conduct an inventory of their pangolin scale stocks and make this publicly available to prove that wild-caught pangolins are no longer supplying the commercial trade.”

I’m saddened by this week’s news about the size of the pangolin trade and that it now involves all eight species.

But this is also an opportunity.

I’m confident the more people know about the pangolin, the more they’ll insist on its protection. They’ll do things like start petitions asking Disney to cast a pangolin in an animated film. Or they’ll create meme-y online videos like these two from CNN readers.

That stuff is goofy but meaningful.

If the pangolin has a big enough fan club, governments and conservation organizations are bound to listen – and to do more to help these defenseless underdogs.

The pangolin’s survival may rest in people being able to see it as sassy and cool. The good thing: It’s both of those. We just have to take time to notice.