This is the week to save the world's most trafficked mammal

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    Inside the illegal wildlife trade

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Story highlights

  • All eight rare pangolin species may be banned from international commercial trade
  • The humble, endangered pangolin is prized in Asia for its scales and meat

John D. Sutter is a columnist for CNN Opinion who focuses on climate change and social justice. Follow him on Snapchat, Facebook and email. The opinions expressed in this commentary are his.

(CNN)The logo for the CITES "world wildlife conference" underway in South Africa features a bunch of animals you'd readily associate with the international conservation movement.

Elephants, sharks, rhinos and tigers.
And then there's the pangolin.
    It's a scale-covered ant eater you might not have heard of, much less recognize.
    Yet the pangolin has become the star of that summit, which is where countries agree on rules that govern the international trade in rare and endangered species. This awkward, introverted creature, which has been compared to a walking pinecone and an artichoke with legs, is thought to be the most trafficked mammal in the world. And on Wednesday, a subcommittee at CITES recommended all eight pangolin species be banned from international commercial trade.
    That move, if confirmed by a plenary session of the meeting next week, is long overdue.
    And it could save these eight rare species from extinction.
    I've long argued the pangolin needs international celebrity to survive, and the CITES vote is a critical step toward achieving that celebrity. According to Ginette Hemley, WWF's senior vice president for wildlife conservation, the pangolin is one of the highest-priority animals at the international wildlife conference.
    "It's become a real cause," she told me by phone from South Africa. "They're so unique. They're so different. There's nothing like them in the world. They've just captured the imagination of a lot of people and a lot of the CITES parties as well. They seem so vulnerable as a species."

    A photo posted by WildAid (@wildaid) on

    I used to worry pangolins would go extinct before anyone knew they existed. Now it's clear that the pangolin is becoming known -- and that visibility, along with these protections, could save it. The question is whether recognition is coming soon enough.
    Already, according to WildAid, 1 million pangolins have been trafficked illegally in the last 15 years. That's only the animals that have been intercepted, often in shipments measured by the ton. Perhaps 10 times that number has been trafficked, said Peter Knights, executive director of WildAid. In my view, the internationally community has largely turned a blind eye to this crisis, preferring to focus on the conservation of big, cute "charismatic" species, like the elephant, rhino and panda.
    But the CITES recommendation to ban commercial trade of all pangolin species is a critical step. In wildlife-law speak, the pangolins were recommended to be moved from CITES Appendix II, which offers fewer protections, to CITES Appendix I. That will stiffen fines and jail time for pangolin traffickers, according to experts.
    On its own, this won't curb demand for pangolin scales, which are used in traditional medicine in Vietnam and China. Or for pangolin meat, which is seen as a rare and highly expensive delicacy in those countries. But it will make getting those products to market far more difficult.
    "People basically get a slap on the wrist" for trafficking pangolin under current regulations, Knights told me. In China, which is thought to be the biggest market for illegal pangolin products, pangolin traffickers now could face 10 years in jail, he said.
    Hemley credited a 2014 CNN investigation with launching this new enthusiasm at CITES.
    "Your initial story on this really put this issue on the map, and it's a been a huge deal," she said. "It's helped galvanize almost a pangolin movement. Seriously. Looking around here everyone is carrying around these plush pangolins. They have these give-aways. I haven't got one myself, they're in such hot demand."
    I had a hard time imagining "plush pangolins" at a business-suit type conference.
    But, thankfully, there's Instagram.

    A photo posted by Pro Wildlife (@pro_wildlife) on

    The CITES recommendations on Wednesday are a great start, but those rules won't be enough to save the pangolin on their own. Conservation groups must continue to try to make the use of pangolin products uncool in Asia.
    CNN's audience has helped with this, donating about $20,000 to fund an anti-pangolin poaching advertisement that aired nationally in Vietnam. It starred a newscaster who's been called "the Anderson Cooper" of Vietnam.
    WildAid is enlisting other celebrities to try to spread a similar message in China and Vietnam.
    The pangolin's emerging fame may be its saving grace.
    I'm grateful CITES negotiators finally voted to recognize this.