Pangolin trade

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A Chinese pangolin (Manis pentadactyla) at Zoo Leipzig in Leipzig, Germany
Pangolin species distributions:      Indian pangolin (Manis crassicaudata)      Chinese pangolin (Manis pentadactyla)      Sunda pangolin (Manis javanica)      Philippine pangolin (Manis culionensis)      Tree pangolin (Phataginus tricuspis)      Long-tailed pangolin (Phataginus tetradactyla)      Giant pangolin (Smutsia gigantea)      Cape pangolin (Smutsia temminckii)

The pangolin trade is the illegal poaching, trafficking, and sale of pangolins, parts of pangolins, or pangolin-derived products. Pangolins are believed to be the world's most trafficked mammal, other than humans, accounting for as much as 20% of all illegal wildlife trade.[1][2][3] According to the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), more than a million pangolins were poached in the decade prior to 2014.[4]

The animals are trafficked mainly for their scales, which are believed to treat a variety of health conditions in traditional Chinese medicine, and as a luxury food in Vietnam and China. Trafficking of the pangolin is also done for medical and spiritual belief use in Africa. The medical and spiritual uses depend on the regions that they are used in and the cultural values that the region holds.

The Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES), which regulates the international wildlife trade, has placed restrictions on the pangolin market since 1975, and in 2016, it added all eight pangolin species to its Appendix I, reserved for the strictest prohibitions on animals threatened with extinction.[5][6] They are also listed on the IUCN Red List, all with decreasing populations and designations ranging from Vulnerable to Critically Endangered.[7]


A coat made with Manis crassicaudata scales on display at the Royal Armouries in Leeds. The coat was given to King George III in 1820, along with a helmet, also made with pangolin scales.

Pangolins are mammals of the order Pholidota, of which there is one extant family, Manidae, with three genera: Manis includes four species in Asia, and Phataginus and Smutsia each comprise two species in Africa. They are the only mammal known to have a layer of large, protective keratin scales covering their skin. Though sometimes known by the common name "scaly anteater," and formerly considered to be in the same order as anteaters, they are taxonomically distant, grouped with Carnivora under the clade Ferae.

Pangolin behavior varies by species, with some living on the ground, in burrows, and some living in trees. A common predator, big cats, struggle to contend with pangolins' scales when rolled up. But while well-equipped to defend against natural predators, they are easily caught by poachers, who simply pick up the animals when they roll into a ball.[2][5]

All eight species of pangolin are listed on the IUCN Red List, with designations ranging from Vulnerable to Critically Endangered.[7] According to the IUCN and other scientists and activists, the populations of all species are rapidly decreasing.[7][1]


The pangolin trade is centuries old. An early known example is in 1820, when Francis Rawdon, 1st Marquis of Hastinges and East India Company Governor General in Bengal, presented King George III with a coat and helmet made with the scales of Manis crassicaudata.[8] The gifts are now stored in the Royal Armouries in Leeds.

The Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES), which regulates the international wildlife trade, added the eight known species of pangolin to its appendices in 1975. CITES places species it seeks to protect in three appendices organized according to urgency and, correspondingly, the strictness of the regulations. Appendix I includes the strictest prohibitions and is reserved for animals threatened with extinction.[6] In 1975, Smutsia temminckii was placed in Appendix I; Manis crassicaudata, Manis culionensis, Manis javanica, and Manis pentadactyla were placed in Appendix II; Smutsia gigantea, Phataginus tetradactyla, and Phataginus tricuspis were placed in Appendix III.[9] In 1995, Smutsia and Phataginus were moved to Appendix II. Finally, in 2016, at the 17th CITES Conference of Parties in Johannesburg, representatives of 182 countries unanimously enacted a ban on the international trade of all pangolin species by moving them to Appendix I.[5] Though the individual species are listed in Appendix I, the family as a whole (Manidae) is under Appendix II, with the implication that if additional species are discovered, they will be automatically placed in Appendix II.[9]

Despite restrictions on trade in place since 1975, enforcement is not uniformly strong. Most efforts have focused on curbing the supply side of the trade, but demand remains high and there is a thriving black market. Pangolins are believed to be the world's most trafficked mammal, accounting for as much as 20% of all illegal wildlife trade.[1][2][3] In 2014, the Worldwatch Institute reported that more pangolins were seized than any other animal in Asia's wildlife black market.[10][11] Estimates place the number of pangolins poached each year at between 10,000 and 100,000.[2][1] The International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) estimates that more than a million pangolins were poached in the decade prior to 2014.[4] Most are sent to China and Vietnam, where their meat is prized and scales used for medicinal purposes.[2]

African and Asian nations frequently report on noteworthy confiscations of pangolins and pangolin parts. When a Chinese boat ran into a coral reef in the Philippines in 2013, officials discovered it to be carrying 10 tonnes of frozen pangolins.[12]

Black market[edit]

Illicit wildlife trade in Myanmar

The black market pangolin trade is primarily active in Asia. Demand is particularly high for their scales, but whole animals are also sold either living or dead for the production of other products with purported medicinal properties or for consumption as exotic food.


Confiscated pangolin scales set to be destroyed in Cameroon in 2017

Pangolins have a thick layer of protective scales made from keratin, the same material that makes up human fingernails and rhinoceros horns.[8] Scales account for about 20% of the animal's weight. When threatened, pangolins curl into a ball, using the scales as armor to defend against predators.

In traditional Chinese medicine, the scales are used for a variety of purposes. The pangolins are boiled to remove the scales,[1] which are then dried and roasted, then sold based on claims that they can stimulate lactation,[2] help to drain pus,[2] and relieve skin diseases[8] or palsy.[2] As of 2015, pangolin scales were covered under some health insurance plans in Vietnam.[13]

The scales can cost more than $3,000/kg on the black market.[2]


Pangolin prepared for cooking

Bushmeat is meat derived from wild animals.[14] The largest portion of bushmeat comes from West and Central African Countries, and a smaller portion from Asian and Latin American countries.[15] It is a multi-billion dollar trade industry and is driven by protein limitations and exotic cuisine.[16] Increase in the human population, bushmeat consumption, and advancing hunting methods have caused harvesting wild animals (bushmeat) to become unsustainable.[14][17] In protected areas such as Botswana, Malawi, Mozambique, and in several West African countries, bushmeat hunting has been identified as the most serious threat to wildlife.[18] Bushmeat hunting has lead to wildlife population declines in several Southern and East African countries that used to be well known for their biodiversity.[18] In Ghana, the bushmeat trade and poor fish supply has been linked to a decline in 41 wildlife species.[16]

Direct consumption in Africa[edit]

Pangolins are located throughout Southern, Central, and East Africa, and can be found in woodlands and savannas.[19] All 8 species of pangolin (4 African, 4 Asian) are listed in Appendix ll of CITES.[15] Lack of conservation awareness, their economic value and local trade, and use as a protein source are all factors that promote pangolin consumption. A large number of pangolins are taken by subsistence hunters (not hunting for trade but direct food consumption).[citation needed] This causes an unregulated and unsustainable decline in fauna resources, and a decline in the size and number of pangolins captured.[citation needed]

Pangolins are not only poached by subsistence hunters for direct consumption, but sold in local markets as well. In Nigeria, Long-tailed (Phataginus tetradactyla) and white-bellied (Phataginus tricuspis) pangolins are identified as the second-most expensive bushmeat.[20] However, in some areas, such as the Congo, pangolins are considered of the least captured animals for bushmeat (totaling 1.7% of the species recorded). This is in-part due to their elusive nature and in some parts of the Congo they are considered taboo to eat.[20] This makes them rarely sold outside villages and consumed primarily in rural areas (in the Congo).[20] Even though they tend to be sold less frequently, consumer demand for them is still relatively high (white bellied pangolin being the third-most requested market meat) which makes them expensive to purchase.[20] It was also found that pangolin meat was not passed through formal markets, but bought directly from urban home-working vendors or hunters in roadside villages.[20]

In Ghana, hunting has been reported using traps, guns or dogs.[21] Though eaten sometimes, in Kwaman, Jachie, and Anyimaye, bushmeat is reportedly eaten infrequently.[22] In Jachie and Kwaman, bushmeat is only eaten once a monthly or weekly basis. In Anyimaye, almost half of the village reported eating bushmeat on a weekly bases.[22] Bushmeat, such as pangolin meat, is reportedly sourced from cities, hunters, eateries, or their own farms.[22]

Bushmeat trade in Africa[edit]

Due to black-market and illegal trading, it is hard to estimate the exact number of pangolins being traded annually.[citation needed] However, based on media reports and seizures, it is suggested that pangolin trade from Africa are for intercontinental use over local use.[citation needed] Pangolin-related seizures have been linked to Asian markets in Honk-Kong, Thailand, and China.[citation needed] Pangolins are traded as either live animals, dead bodies, trophies, carvings, scales, skins, or leather goods. However, some pangolins have been traded internationally as zoo animals.[23]

In Ghana, most of their bushmeat trade occurs outside of formal markets.[22] The most popular process for trading pangolin bushmeat is from farmer hunters to chopbar operators and wholesalers.[22] It was found that chopbars offered higher prices to hunters than wholesale operators, and that live animals (including pangolins) went for double the price.[22] There is an indication of elevated hunting during lean farming periods. This, in-part, seems to be due to low labor demands for cocoa farms (a primary agricultural resource in Ghana) in September and October and consequentially higher labor demands in November and December.[22] When cocoa labor is low, hunting increases, and when cocoa labor is high, hunting decreases.[22]

A record in 1990 show imports of pangolins scales to South Korea from Madagascar – where no pangolin species live. Though not considered bushmeat, this can suggest that as Asian pangolin species become more rare, demand may shift to African markets to adhere to Asian market demand.[23]

Asian bushmeat demand[edit]

Pangolin meat is prized as a delicacy in parts of China and Vietnam.[3] In China, the meat is believed to have nutritional value that makes it particularly good for kidney function.[8]

In Vietnam, restaurants can charge as much as $150 per pound of pangolin meat.[8] At one restaurant in Ho Chi Minh City, pangolin is the most expensive item on its menu of exotic wildlife, requiring a deposit and a few hours' notice. Restaurant employees kill the animal at the table, in front of diners, to show authenticity and freshness.[13]

According to Dan Challender of the International Union for Conservation of Nature's pangolin specialist group, "The fact that it's illegal isn't played down and is even attractive, because it adds this element that you live beyond the law."[13]

Other products[edit]

Though meat and scales are the primary drivers of the pangolin trade, there are also other less common parts and uses. Pangolin wine is produced by boiling rice wine with a baby pangolin.[1] It is purported to have various healing properties, such as for treatment of skin disease and improved breathing.[1][24] Pangolin blood is similarly viewed by some as having medicinal value.[1] Pangolin skins have also been trafficked. In 2015, Uganda reported it had seized two tons of pangolin skins.[8]

Pangolin use in Africa[edit]

Humans hunt, trade, and traffic pangolins in Africa due to beliefs that various parts of the animals' bodies possess spiritual and curative powers.[25] Pangolins are commonly used for traditional medicine and spiritual purposes, but the trade and hunting of these animals in Africa is also prohibited because of spiritual taboos. Pangolins, in some communities, are seen as a personification of spiritual beings.[26] For example, chiefs within the Hurungwe District of Zimbabwe prohibit the killing or trade of Pangolins.[26]


Traditional medicine or ethnomedicine has been continually practiced by communities in many African countries for centuries.[27][28][29] Ethnomedicine is defined as the comparative study of cultural notions of illness and health, and the way that illnesses are treated.[30] In some countries, like Ghana, traditional medicine is the main way that the majority of the population receives access to medical treatment.[27] Within the communities that practice traditional medicine, many pangolin body parts are used, and the uses of each body part depends upon the community that is using the body part because of each culture's unique traditional medicine. The cultural traditional medicines described below have not been scientifically tested for their efficacy.


Map of Africa showing Nigeria, Ghana, Botswana, and Sierra Leone

Within Nigeria, the Yorubic medical practitioners in Ogun State, Nigeria and the Awori Tribe of Southwestern Nigeria use pangolin body parts for traditional medicine.[29][31] The Yorubic medical practitioners use scales, bones, and the head of the pangolin to treat different medical ailments. The scales are used to treat stomach disorders, gonorrhea, regulate menstrual periods, cure genital itching or swelling, heal wounds and cuts, treat mental illness, treat stroke, and serve as an antidote for both sexual poison and regular poison.[29] The bones of a pangolin are used to treat stroke, back pain, and rheumatism. The head of a pangolin is used to treat convulsions and remove dizziness. The Awori Tribe uses the scales of a pangolin to treat back pain, mental illness, rheumatism, stomach ulcers, and venereal diseases.[31] The scales are also used to heal wounds and cuts, create aphrodisiacs, and serve as antibiotics.[31] The bones of the pangolin are used by the Awori Tribe to treat rheumatism and stroke.[31] Lastly, the head is used by this tribe to treat mental illness.[31]


In a study done in Ghana, they discovered that 13 pangolin body parts were used in Kumasi, a metropolitan area in Ghana.[27] Within this area of Ghana, the scales are used to treat a number of different medical ailments like rheumatism, infertility, convulsions, epilepsy, menstrual pains, stomach disorders, headaches, waist and back pain, stroke, mental illness, skin scars, waterborne illnesses, and leprosy.[27] Another part of the body that was mainly used were pangolin bones.[27] The bones are used to treat rheumatism, convulsions, headaches, stroke, waist pain, asthma, mental illness, fever, bedwetting, broken legs, skin rashes, and breast cancer.[27] The head of the pangolin is used to treat infertility, stroke, headaches, heart disease, fever, gonorrhea, and body aches.[27] Other body parts of the pangolin are also used for ethnomedicine such as the meat, flesh, and eyes.[27]


In the Lentsweletau extended area in Botswana, the body parts of the pangolin that are used are the lungs scales, heart, blood, lungs, and stomach.[32] The scales of the pangolin are used to heal cracked heels, treat a persistent cough, to treat nose bleeds, and if they are burned then the smoke can be used to improve cattle health.[32][33] The heart is used to treat heart attack, asthma, and Psoriasis.[32] The blood of the pangolin is used to stop nose bleeding and treat hypertension.[32] The lungs of the pangolin are used to treat asthma, and the stomach is used to treat internal parasites in children.[32]

Sierra Leone[edit]

In the Bombali district of Sierra Leone, the main three body parts of the pangolin that are used for traditional medicine are the scales, oil, meat, and head of the pangolin.[34] The scales are used to treat skin disease, impotence, infertility, broken ribs, stomach diseases, inflammation of the naval, athletes foot, nail disorders, healing premature babies, arthritis, rheumatism, epilepsy, body pain, ear infections, and skin rashes and scars.[34] The oil of the pangolin is used in Sierra Leone to treat skin rash, skin stretch marks, heel fissures, skin diseases, knee pain, heart disease, and elephantiasis.[34] The meat of the pangolin is used for healing premature babies, stomach disorders, rheumatism, epilepsy, high blood pressure, body pain, common childhood diseases, treating convulsions, and anemia.[34] The head of the pangolin is used by the people in Sierra Leone to treat infertility, headaches, skin diseases, act as a antidote for poison, and to treat toothache, heart disease, paralysis, hernia, and claw hand.[34]

Non-medicinal belief use[edit]

Non-medicinal belief use is the use of natural products in a range of spiritual, ritual, and occult purposes.[35][27][28][29][34] The body parts that are used and what the body parts are used for depends on the region or country that are using these body parts and the cultural group in that region. The spiritual used of pangolin body parts related more to solving problems that aren't physical ailments.[27][29][34][31][32] They are such problems like improving the financials of a family or individual, protecting against evil or witchcraft, or increasing good luck.[27][29][34][31] The pangolin is used for spiritual reasons in African countries including Nigeria, Ghana, Sierra Leone, and Botswana.[35][27][28][29][34][31][32]


In Nigeria, the flesh of the pangolin can be used to confer abilities of divination to the consumer. It can also give good luck, as well as provide protection and safety, and calmness of a hardened mind.[29][31] The head and the tip of the tail combined can lead to breaking through in a business.[31] The limbs of a pangolin can be used for good fortune and money, and can also be used to create rituals.[31] The scales of a pangolin are also commonly used in Nigeria to give good luck, increase the productivity of a farm, wade off witches and evil forces, have a safe delivery of a child, provide protection, to arrest thieves, and to create amulets.[29][31] The whole body of a pangolin is used in building rituals, for good fortune, prosperity, wading off sickness or illness, removing the barreness in a women, invisibility, to enable the womb to retain semen, good sales in market, hypnotizing a women for sexual abuse, to win or seduce a women for marriage, for money rituals, and the prevention of spells and curses.[29][31]


In Ghana, the community in the Kusami metropolitan area use pangolin scales, bones, head, and meat for non-medical purposes.[27] Pangolins scales are used for spiritual protection, financial rituals, and protection from witchcraft.[27] The pangolin's bones are used for spiritual protection and protection from witchcraft.[27] The head of a pangolin is used for spiritual protection and financial rituals.[27] The meat of a pangolin is used to create charms for tribal chiefs and pangolin tail is used to help aid in courting a lady.[27]

Sierra Leone[edit]

In the Bombali district of Sierra Leone, scales, meat, blood, intestines, claws, and whole pangolin are part of the pangolin body used.[34] The scales of the pangolin are used to make one bulletproof and cutlassproof, and to provide protection from witchcraft as well as other spiritual protection.[34] The meat of a pangolin is used to increase intelligence of an individual, and the tail of a pangolin is used to prevent against a snake bite and to provide spiritual protection.[34] The blood and claws of a pangolin is used for protection against witchcraft while the intestines of the pangolin are used for good luck.[34] The whole animal is used to allow for invisibility of an individual.[34]


In the Lentsweletau extended area of Botswana, there are seven main parts of the pangolin that are used.[32] The fat of the pangolin is used to protect against bad luck and evil.[32] To create this spiritual outcome the fat of the pangolin is mixed with other bioactive compounds used by cultural groups.[32] To protect one's homestead against evil or a form of bad luck, pangolin nose is mixed with other bioactive compounds.[32] The head of a pangolin is used to protect livestock and as a kraal against evil spells and predators.[32] Paws and scales in combination are used to protect crops and a plowed field from any form of evil or witchcraft[32] The scales and blood of a pangolin are used together to attract lovers or customers.[32] For this spiritual use the scales are either kept in the person's wallet or in the safe of the business that they want to attract customers too.[32] The whole body of a pangolin is used to determine the gender of new borne calves.[32]

The use of pangolin body parts for either medical or non-medical belief uses is tied into the communities cultural worldview. Their traditional beliefs are tied into their traditional ecological knowledge and the ways that they have lived for generations, thus indicating the culture that defines their view of the world and their beliefs about pangolins.[27] These communities also use traditional medicine over western medicine because of their lack of access to western medicine.[34] Traditional medicine is the main or only source of medicine that people in the developing world have and is used in both urban and rural areas.[34] The lack of access to western medicine is because the cost of western medicine is so high, there are few established clinics, and there are few well trained doctors.[36] Because of the heavy reliance on traditional ecology it may be difficult to reduce the use of pangolins in traditional medicine.

Conservation and enforcement[edit]

David Attenborough has advocated for the protection of pangolins.
8 tonnes of confiscated pangolin scales burning in Cameroon in 2017

Governments and non-governmental organizations have undertaken a variety of conservation efforts, with varying activities and degrees of success in different parts of the world. The IUCN's Species Survival Commission formed a Pangolin Specialist Group in 2012, comprising 100 experts from 25 countries, hosted by the Zoological Society of London.[4] It also coordinated an annual awareness day, World Pangolin Day, on February 15, starting in 2014.[1]

Public awareness and support for conservation efforts can be important to their success. According to Annette Olsson, technical advisor at Conservation International, one of the problems the pangolin faces is that, unlike more well-known endangered animals like elephants, rhinoceroses, pandas, or tigers, "It's not huge and not very charismatic. It's small and weird and just disappearing."[8] Legal measures focus on curbing poaching and the supply side of the market, while media attention and public awareness can be crucial to the success to animal conservation efforts by affecting demand. According to CNN's John D. Sutter, "the pangolin needs international celebrity to survive, and the CITES vote is a critical step toward achieving that celebrity."[24] In some part due to lack of attention, pangolin conservation has not been a significant recipient of funding from governments or NGOs.[1]

On 17 February 2017, a day before World Pangolin Day, officials in Cameroon burned 3 tonnes of confiscated pangolin scales, representing up to 10,000 animals. The Cameroonian government had confiscated more than 8 tonnes of pangolin scales since 2013.[37] This conservation strategy is similar to the increasingly common destroying confiscated ivory to deter poaching and generate public outrage or action. As with ivory, there is an opportunity cost to destroying the material, trading awareness via public spectacle for the money which could be gained by reselling what was confiscated.[1]

In Vietnam, one of the countries in which the pangolin trade is most active, activists have access to only two centers able to take care of pangolins, and together they can only keep 50 animals in total.[13] CNN characterized Vietnamese activists as having "vastly inadequate support."[1]

A significant challenge to conservationists is the difficulty pangolins have in captivity. The animals do not adapt well to alternative or artificial foods and suffer stress, depression and malnutrition, leading to significantly shortened lifespans.[2][8] For these reasons they are rarely found in zoos or visible to the public while alive.[1] For example, as of 2015, the only zoo in the United States to have a pangolin is the San Diego Zoo, and only one because the other died due to digestive problems.[1] Part of the problem, which is also a major cause of the problem, is that without the ability to observe healthy pangolins in captivity, there is still a lot about pangolins humans have not yet been able to learn – variety in their diet, maximum lifespan, maximum size, mating habits, and many aspects of their behavior.[1]

In an episode of the BBC program Natural World, David Attenborough highlighted the Sunda pangolin as one of the 10 species he would like to save from extinction, recalling rescuing "one of the most endearing animals I have ever met" from being eaten while working on a film early in his career.[38]


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