An increasing demand for the scales and meat of the endangered pangolin in China and Vietnam is pushing impoverished farmers in India’s north-east into the illegal trade, a new report has found.
Pangolins are often recognized as the world’s most highly-trafficked mammal and their body parts can fetch large sums of money – the poorest hunters in India’s Assam state can earn a full year’s salary for a single pangolin, researchers from World Animal Protection (WAP) and the University of Oxford said Monday, following a two-year investigation.
Of 141 people interviewed in 31 villages over a period of 10 months, “all but two of the hunters confirmed hunting pangolins for both personal and commercial use,” the report said.
“Scales from just one pangolin can offer a life-changing sum of money for people in these communities. But it’s in no way sustainable and the numbers of pangolins in the wild are beginning to plummet,” David Macdonald, professor of wildlife conservation at Oxford University, said in a press release.
The report documents the cruelty pangolins suffer as they are hunted from their burrows or smoked out of the trees and beaten repeatedly on the head.
Disturbing footage obtained by WAP appears to show poachers bludgeoning a pangolin with a machete and boiling it before removing its scales.
“Suffocated with smoke, beaten and boiled alive – this is a terrifying ordeal and pangolins clearly suffer immensely,” Neil D’Cruze, global wildlife adviser at World Animal Protection and lead researcher, said in the statement. “Not only is this a major conservation issue – it’s a devastating animal welfare concern.”
In India, selling pangolins for commercial gain is illegal under the Wildlife Protection Act and poaching is punishable with imprisonment of between one and six years, plus a fine.
A lucrative trade
A global ban on commercial trade in pangolins was issued in 2016 by the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES).
Despite this, rising demand is pushing people in poor rural communities in Assam to hunt pangolins and sell them to urban middlemen, who then sell them on to buyers in China and Vietnam, where their scales are highly sought after for their supposed healing properties, researchers found.
Around 5,772 pangolins were seized in India between 2009 and 2017, according to TRAFFIC, an NGO working on wildlife trade.
Worldwide, more than a million pangolins are believed to be killed and traded between 2000 and 2013, primarily for the traditional Asian medicine trade. And between 2010 and 2015 there were 1,270 reported seizures in 67 countries and territories across six continents, according to the report.
The brink of extinction
All eight species of the pangolin – four Asian and four African – are threatened with extinction in the 51 countries where they live, according to the report.
Illegal poaching is directly responsible for driving pangolin numbers down, the report found. Fueling this demand is the belief in some Asian countries, particularly China and Vietnam, that pangolin scales can treat impotence and infertility.
Pangolin scales are made of keratin, the same material that makes human fingernails and hair, and practitioners of traditional Chinese medicine believe they can improve blood circulation, cure skin disorders and infections. The scales are also considered an aphrodisiac and the meat is a delicacy in some countries.
There has been no evidence that pangolin scales have medicinal value, and researchers note there have been reports that ingesting the scales can cause adverse effects such as bloating, jaundice and liver damage.
“Pangolins are at real risk of becoming extinct – the demand for their meat and unique scales for traditional medicine is well documented,” Kate Nustedt, director of WPA, said in the report. “But this new evidence takes our understanding of why it’s such an issue to a new level.”
The WPA has called for stronger enforcement of laws, support for alternative livelihoods for the poachers and a coordinated push by governments and NGOs to eliminate consumer demand for the traditional Asian medicines that include pangolin parts.