For millions of years, the pangolin’s natural reserve had been its best defence. The only mammal with hard, plate-like scales, it looks something like a badger in chainmail – and at the merest hint of danger, the pangolin simply roles up into a tight ball that is nearly impossible for a predator to penetrate. The shell is so tough that it can even resist the teeth of lions, tigers and leopards.
Not that many scientists have even been able to witness this behaviour themselves. There are eight species of pangolin across Asia and Africa, and they are all nocturnal, and notoriously shy, hiding in burrows and hollow trees for most of the day. Even conservationists working extensively in their natural habitats often struggle to catch sight of one. “I don’t think I’ve ever met someone who’s seen a wild pangolin,” says Timothy Bonebrake, a biologist at Hong Kong University (HKU).
This natural shyness may help the pangolin to hide from a careful conservationist, but it is no match for the more determined poacher. Using its distinctive footprint – the front claw curves inwards as it walks – to identify a local population, the hunter can then use trained dogs to sniff them out of their burrows, or a trap to capture them as they snuffle for food at night. Bonebrake remembers seeing the poachers at the side of the road in Cameroon, holding the pangolins by their tails as they flaunted them for sale.
The live pangolin is presented at the dinner table before the chef slits its throat in front of the guests - a guarantee of the meat’s freshness
Decades ago, those animals may have just ended up in the local market; today, the majority are exported thousands of miles across the globe. Most consumers come from mainland China and Vietnam, where the keratin scales are an important ingredient for traditional medicines, and the meat is often prized as a delicacy at banquets. Ideally, the live pangolin is presented at the dinner table before the chef slits its throat in front of the guests, as a guarantee of the meat’s freshness. And as the pangolin populations in Asia dwindle, more and more are now being captured in Africa to meet the demand.
In total, the International Union for the Conservation of Nature estimates that a million pangolins may have crossed international borders in the last decade – making them the world’s most trafficked mammal.
If this continues, extinction will be inevitable. Natural populations are already half their number at the beginning of the millennium, and a series of large seizures during the past year would suggest that the demand is only increasing. “It’s very difficult to tell, but it seems like trade has crescendoed,” says Alexandra Andersson, an ecology PhD student at HKU and consultant for Humane Society International. “It’s mindboggling how much is coming through.”
Each pangolin is thought to eat 70 million ants and termites a year
The wider environmental repercussions of this loss are largely unknown. “We’re seeing these declines in pangolins but will it have an effect on the ecosystems? We don’t know,” says Bonebrake. “But it could be that pangolins are really important.” Each pangolin is thought to eat 70 million ants and termites a year, for instance. “That’s pretty critical in terms of the ecosystem turnover.” Without this natural pest control, those areas may soon be overrun with insects.
Compared to the dangers facing elephants, rhinos or tigers, however, the plight of the pangolin has failed to penetrate the public consciousness, particularly in the West. “It’s only in the last year or two that people have started to realise that pangolins are in trouble,” says Bonebrake. As the UK’s Prince William baldly put it, “the pangolin runs the risk of becoming extinct before most people have even heard of them”.
So how did this elusive, reticent creature become the focus of this billion-dollar industry? And what can be done to save it? To find out, I visited Bonebrake and Andersson in HKU’s “conservation forensics lab” – a group with a unique view of all kinds of animal trafficking.
As I soon discover, there are few better places to study wildlife crime: for various geographical, cultural, political and economic reasons, Hong Kong is a hub for the trafficking of many different endangered species. The rising threat facing the pangolin only makes sense in this broader context.
I first meet Andersson in the Sheung Wan district, a 30-minute walk from the university. Along the way, she leads me past shop after shop selling shark’s fin and other forms of dried seafood. Like pangolin meat, the shark’s fin soup is often considered the centrepiece of a banquet. Its texture – a kind of “strandy silkiness” with a “gelatinous bite”, according to food writer Fuchsia Dunlop – may be part of the attraction; but so is the sheer expense of hunting and killing the shark, making it a symbol of wealth and power. “Emperors used to eat it as a delicacy, and it’s become popular because people want to demonstrate their status,” says Andersson.
Although some shark’s fins are legal in Hong Kong, products from species such as the hammerhead are banned. Unfortunately, it’s currently very difficult to determine a fin's origins – making these shops the most visible front of the city’s illegal wildlife trade. “Short of testing each fin I don’t know what you can do,” says Andersson.
The trade of one particularly sought-after species of Mexican fish, the totoaba, is apparently as lucrative as cocaine
Other goods are specifically valued for their medicinal properties. Alongside the shark fins we see dried fish bladders – or “maws” – hanging from the shop ceilings. The maws are traditionally used to cure joint pains and ease the discomfort of pregnancy and are even said to be aphrodisiacs. Again, certain species’ maws are legal, while the trade of other endangered species has been banned – but the stratospheric prices mean some traders are willing to take the risk. The trade of one particularly sought-after species of Mexican fish, the totoaba, is apparently as lucrative as cocaine.
The pangolin’s extinction may arise from similar (scientifically unproven) beliefs. The animal’s scales are simply made from keratin, the same stuff as fingernails and hair, meaning they should have little nutritional value, but practitioners of Chinese medicine believe that they can cure a number of ills. The benefits are thought to arise, in part, from their behaviour in the wild. “The first medical use of pangolin scales was to treat ant stings – because they eat ants,” says Cheng Wenda, a PhD student in Bonebrake’s lab. “And because pangolins dig holes, they believe they can open some blockage in your body.” Perhaps for these reasons, some practitioners claim the scales can improve fertility and that they can even fight cancer.
These beliefs are deeply embedded in the culture, and many residents in Hong Kong continue to follow the ancient recipes – as Andersson showed with a recent survey. “We found that 85% of the respondents thought that pangolin scales had medicinal value, even though there is no peer-reviewed evidence for this.”
As with the shark fins, there had been some confusion about which pangolin species could be imported: until recently, it was legal to trade certain quantities ofthe African species, but it was very hard for law enforcers or consumers to verify the source. That changed with a new ruling of the Convention on the International Trade in Endangered Species in late 2016, which now protects all species equally. “That was a very big win – now it’s as clear as day, black and white,” says Andersson. Even so, she suspects that a few of the shops we pass may be trading in the scales, although we would have to work hard to gain their trust before the traders would admit it openly.
In any case, most of the imported animals pass through Hong Kong to the rest of China. Its status as a ‘free port’ – a legacy of British occupation – has meant that customs regulations are traditionally lax, and its location makes it an easy route to the nearby Guangdong province, where demand is particularly high. The region is famed for its ‘wild flavour’ cuisine, including the use of bush meats – although the use of more controversial ingredients is often sheathed in secrecy. Andersson, for instance, remembers enquiring about the possibility of eating pangolin meat at a restaurant in Guangzhou. “They initially said yeah, we can organise that for you,” Andersson says – only for the waiter to return, pretending that he had no recollection of the conversation.
After our walk through the shark fin shops, Andersson takes me to her university department, where her colleagues help to explain why the illegal trade of animals – including pangolins – continues unabated. The primary explanation may be the rocketing Chinese economy, and the resulting consumerism, they say. “Whether it’s for medicinal use, or status – there are different reasons depending on what it is – more people want more stuff, and they’ve got more money to be able to buy it,” says Yvonne Sadovy, who is working on the conservation of threatened marine life.
This economic boom has also created a backbone of international trading links through China’s increasing investments abroad. Bonebrake witnessed this through his work in Cameroon, where Chinese investors are pouring money into the local infrastructure, in return for increased access to natural resources, like the local timber.
The cultural and economic connections between the two countries are impossible to ignore, he says. “Where I stay in Yaoundé in Cameroon – in that part of town, there are Chinese hotels, Chinese restaurants – all the writing’s in Chinese,” he says. “And every time you see a new road, you say, ‘where did this come from?’ And it’s the Chinese that built it.”
All of which allows the traders to slip in their illegal goods along with the legitimate imports. “There’s so much back and forth between these areas – it’s actually not such a big deal if you have some pangolin scales in one of the shipping containers,” he adds. “A lot of these huge pangolin seizures are just a consequence of the natural resources that are being extracted from Africa and coming to China.”
If you are going to transport 13,000kg of scales – it’s really a job that requires a lot of organisation - Alexandra Andersson
The sheer size of the latest seizures would suggest that large organised crime networks are masterminding this international trade. “If you are going to transport 13,000kg of scales – it’s really a job that requires a lot of organisation,” says Andersson. “I think there must be massive operations behind it.” Crucially, these criminals are not specialists: in many cases, the same organisations appear to be responsible for trafficking many different species.
Unfortunately, wildlife trafficking in Hong Kong does not receive the same attention as other forms of organised crime. “There were 89 cases of pangolin smuggling between 2010 and 2015,” Andersson says, “and only nine proceeded with prosecution.” Often the penalties amount to a few months in jail, and a fine of a few thousand Hong Kong dollars. Given the value of the goods being traded – worth tens of millions – those penalties are a risk worth taking. “It’s like a business expense.” Alex Hofford, a wildlife campaigner for the charity WildAid who helped to expose Hong Kong’s illegal ivory trade, agrees that the penalties are “shockingly low”. “[The traffickers] know that if they do get caught, it’ll just be a slap on the wrist.”
Perhaps pragmatically, the team at HKU are keen to emphasise that they do not see the government as their adversaries. “It’s quite easy to bash the government when it comes to these things, but the people that I’ve encountered are very passionate about it – but they have very little ability to do anything about it, either because they lack the legal mandate or just the funding," says David Baker, who specialises in marine ecology, and who has also examined the trading of various sea creatures. "The number of personnel working on endangered species is quite low.”
They hope that by providing the necessary scientific tools, they will help to shape a more effective system. One aim is to demonstrate the existence of large syndicates behind the trading. “When we can really build the evidence to show that it is organised crime, it’ll be taken a lot more seriously,” says Sadovy. They also offer genetic testing to provide further clarity on the species of animals that are being traded, and “isotope analysis”, which can identify chemical traces to pinpoint the animal’s country of origin.
Computational approaches can also build a more detailed picture of the trade. Cheng and Bonebrake recently analysed the data of recent pangolin seizures over the past eight years (amounting to more than 65,000 individual pangolins in total) to better understand the trading networks across China. Their initial analysis, published earlier this year, suggested that there are three particularly crucial hubs for the exchange of these creatures: Guangzhou, Fangchenggang (which borders Vietnam), and Kunming in the Yunnan province, a little farther north.
For Bonebrake, this kind of nuanced description is a crucial step forward. “One of the nice things is to break it down… to say that yes, it’s demand from China, but it’s these parts of China, where if we put in more effort, not just for law enforcement, but education and other attempts at demand reduction [of pangolins], we can actually have an impact.”
All of the team agree that greater public awareness of these issues is crucial, though they avoid criticising these ancient beliefs too strongly. “You know, I’m not saying that Chinese traditional medicine is wrong or bad or useless,” says Andersson. “The texts are thousands of years old and they have a strong resonance in the culture – but in the instances when mass consumerism on the industrial scale of these endangered species is happening, we need an alternative, because we don’t want them to disappear.”
Hearteningly, opinions are already changing towards some of the trafficked products. Sardovy, for instance, points to the fact that many young people refuse to serve the traditional shark’s fin at their wedding banquets. “To do that they really have to stand up to their parents and the older generation, which is tough,” she says. “It’s an exciting time, I think, to get the right messaging out now.”
Baker agrees. “At this point in time we have a huge rise – almost a tidal wave – of environmentalism, not just in Hong Kong but also in mainland China. People are more educated and more aware of environmental issues and how their decision-making links to those environmental issues.” The pangolin has even attracted a high-profile ambassador, the Hong Kong actress Sharon Kwok, who is now devoted to educating people about its plight.
If that generation acts quickly, there may still be time to save the pangolin.
David Robson is BBC Future’s feature writer. He is @d_a_robson on Twitter.
Join 800,000+ Future fans by liking us on Facebook, or follow us on Twitter.
If you liked this story, sign up for the weekly bbc.com features newsletter, called “If You Only Read 6 Things This Week”. A handpicked selection of stories from BBC Future, Earth, Culture, Capital, and Travel, delivered to your inbox every Friday.