Some wild mammal species are being driven to extinction for their fur, hides, horns or tusks, but the pangolin, or scaly anteater, is being eaten out of existence by wealthy humans, the IUCN warned on Tuesday.
“Consumers are willing to pay increasingly high prices for their meat, which is being plated up at banquets across the East as a luxury food,” the International Union for Conservation of Nature said in a statement.
Illegal trade has reached an epic scale
It said the illegal trade in pangolins had now “reached an epic scale”, with all eight species of the world’s only truly scaly mammal now threatened with extinction.
Pangolins occur in Asia and Africa, including in South Africa. They have large sharp scales covering their skin, and roll up into a tight ball when threatened. They are nocturnal, and use their long, sticky tongues to catch insects, mainly ants and termites.
The IUCN said that while the creature’s scales acted as armour against natural predators, these offered no defence against poachers.
Of the eight species of pangolins around the world, four occur in Asia and four in Africa
“As the populations of the four Asian pangolin species plummet, traders are now looking to Africa to meet the growing demand,” IUCN said.
Last month, Hong Kong custom authorities seized more than a ton of pangolin scales in a shipping container sent from South Africa.
It was reported at the time as the largest seizure of pangolin at Hong Kong’s ports in five years, and that the scales were worth R5 million on the black market. International trade in pangolin is banned under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (Cites).
Scales used in traditional Chinese medicine
Pangolin scales are used in traditional Chinese medicine, where they are believed to cure a variety of ills, including psoriasis and poor circulation.
In its statement, the IUCN said all eight pangolin species were being illegally sold to buyers in China and Vietnam.
It was launching a conservation action on Tuesday that laid out steps that needed to be taken to clamp down on the illegal trade.
“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,” it said.
South Africa is home to the ground, or Temminck’s, pangolin (Manis temminckii), which ranges mainly across the northern and north-eastern parts of the country, extending further north in Africa up to Sudan.
They can measure up to a metre in length and weigh up to 18kg. The name pangolin comes from the Malay “pengguling”, meaning to roll up.