Credit: Save Vietnam's Wildlife

Saving pangolins from extinction

Saving pangolins has been at the core of our Wildlife programme for many years. These extraordinary creatures are the world’s most trafficked wild mammal. The pangolin is prized for its meat, which is considered a delicacy, and for its scales, which are used in traditional Chinese medicine.

Our campaigns work to expose and end the global wildlife trade.

In February 2014, 41 countries and the European Union adopted the London Declaration on Illegal Wildlife Trade, committing to tackle the illegal multi-billion dollar transnational wildlife trade.

In November 2016, we drew on more than three decades of experience in tackling wildlife and forest crime to evaluate the significant challenges, best practice and progress made by some of the key countries. Our Time For Action report summarised the key findings of our preliminary assessment and reiterated recommendations which should be made a priority.

In 2018, we launched our dedicated Pangolin Campaign, expanding on the intelligence we had already built up through our work to save tigers and elephants. We are determined to save pangolins from extinction – while there’s still time.

How EIA’s work is saving pangolins

Our work focused on saving pangolins includes:

Pangolins under threat of extinction

Pangolins are under extreme pressure due to the demand for their meat and scales. We don’t know how many pangolins are left in the wild, as no reliable population studies are available. But if poaching and trafficking continue at the current rate, pangolins will be wiped out altogether in the coming decades.

  • >100,000

    Pangolins are taken from the wild

    each year
  • 895,000

    Pangolins trafficked in Africa and Asia (minimum)

    between 2000-19
  • 80%

    Of some pangolin populations have disappeared

    past 20 years

Meet the pangolin

African pangolin

African pangolin

Pangolins are remarkable creatures. They’ve been called living pinecones, walking artichokes and tiny dinosaurs.

Covered in large overlapping scales, they walk with an unusual and distinctive gait – putting most of their weight on their back legs, curling up their forepaws to protect their long claws and using their tail to help keep their balance.

Being mostly nocturnal, they rely on their sharp senses of smell and hearing to detect their prey: ants and termites. They use their powerful front claws to dig open nests and use their astonishingly long, sticky tongue (almost the same length as their body) to swallow up to 20,000 insects in a single night.

Pangolins are shy, secretive and solitary. Females usually give birth to one pup, which will hitch a ride by clinging onto its mother’s scales until it’s old enough to keep up.

These unsung heroes are vital to their ecosystems: they control the numbers of pest insects and their habit of burrowing turns and aerates the soil. This means they help the rural farming communities living alongside them as well.

Designed with built-in protection

Pangolins are a remarkable design of nature. They’re the world’s only truly scaly mammal. Curling into a ball when threatened, their natural armour is strong enough to protect them from the bite of a lion. The name ‘pangolin’ comes from the Malay word ‘penggulung’, meaning ‘one who rolls up’.

Sadly, although this tactic defends them from their natural predators, it leaves these amazing animals vulnerable to poachers – who can simply pick them up and put them in a sack.

Pangolins at risk: all eight species endangered

There’s no time to waste. The pangolin desperately needs our help now.

There are currently eight species of pangolin: four native to Africa and four to Asia. All eight species are globally threatened, according to the IUCN Red List, the world’s most comprehensive inventory of species at risk.

The Red List assigns the following categories to globally threatened species:

  • Critically Endangered – this species faces an extremely high risk of extinction in the wild
  • Endangered – this species faces a very high risk of extinction in the wild
  • Vulnerable – this species faces a high risk of extinction in the wild.

In 2019, three species of pangolin were pushed further up the IUCN risk register due to the growing impact of habitat loss, poaching and illegal trade.

Two African species, the giant ground pangolin (Smutsia gigantea) and the white-bellied pangolin (Phataginus tricuspis), were reclassified from ‘Vulnerable’ to ‘Endangered’ on the IUCN Red List of Endangered Species.

Meanwhile, one Asian species, the Philippine pangolin (Manis culionensis), was reclassified from ‘Endangered’ to ‘Critically Endangered’.

Illegal trade in pangolins shows dramatic increase

In 2016, all eight species of pangolins were given the highest level of protected status by the United Nations Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES), meaning that all international trade in pangolins is now illegal.

Despite this agreement by world governments, the illegal trade in pangolins has continued to intensify. Over the past decade, there has been a dramatic increase in the quantity of pangolins trafficked from Africa and Asia. Saving pangolins has never been more urgent.

  • Global illegal trade from Africa to Asia has increased significantly since 2008.
  • As many as one million pangolins have been illegally traded within Asia in the past 10-15 years.
  • Hundreds of thousands of pangolins are being poached across their global range every year and a minimum of 895,000 individual pangolins have been trafficked in Africa and Asia between 2000-19.

From Africa to Asia: pangolin scale seizures

Routes and Seizures related to the trade of pangolin scales

Routes and Seizures related to the trade of pangolin scales (click for larger image)

Most trafficked pangolin products, whether entire animals or scales, are destined for the Chinese and Vietnamese markets. Vietnam has also become a major transit hub for trafficking pangolins into China, as we revealed in our report, Running out of Time: Wildlife Crime Justice Failures in Vietnam.

Criminal groups focus on Africa’s threatened pangolin population

Pangolin scales seizure, Nigeria

As pangolin populations in Asia have declined, the focus of the illegal pangolin trade has increasingly turned to Africa.

The pangolin population in Africa is under further pressure as many ivory and rhino horn traffickers have diversified to trade in pangolin scales. Traffickers attempt to hide pangolin scales in container shipments alongside legal commercial goods such as agricultural products and timber.

For the criminal groups that have historically traded in elephant ivory or rhino horn, the pangolin trade is highly profitable. The major Chinese criminal syndicate profiled in EIA’s recent report The Shuidong Connection moved its operations from eastern Africa to western Africa, and one of its objectives is to traffic pangolin scales out of Nigeria to China.

Clamping down on the Nigerian trafficking hub

Nigeria and the Democratic Republic of Congo are now the primary exit points for the trafficking of pangolin scales from Africa, where this criminal activity has been largely undetected by authorities.

However, in February 2020, in an abandoned warehouse in Lagos, customs officers found 147 sacks containing 9.5 tonnes of poached pangolin scales, equating to approximately 9,500 dead pangolins.

The industrial volume of dead pangolins represented by this 9.5 tonne haul of scales should spur the Nigerian Government to go beyond seizures and proactively investigate the criminal networks involved.

Chris Hamley, EIA’s Senior Pangolin Campaigner

We hope that the Nigerian Government will be spurred on by this success to close the net on the wildlife traffickers involved in this illicit activity.

Why pangolins are in crisis

Habitat destruction plays a role in the increased risk to pangolins. However, the primary threat to pangolins’ continued survival is consumers’ desire for pangolin scales and meat, which is driving poaching and the illegal trade in pangolins.

Pangolin scales used for traditional medicine

Dried pangolin scales have long been a staple of the traditional Chinese medicine industry. Pangolins are boiled, their scales are dried, roasted and then used in pills and powders based on medicinal formulas approved by the Chinese Government when in fact pangolin scales are nothing more than keratin, the same type of protein found in human hair and nails.

Endangered wildlife has no place in any type of medicine

The legal use of pangolin scales in traditional Chinese medicine in China is particularly concerning as it’s not a question of one person in a back room with a pestle and mortar. This is a huge £46 billion industry that is keen to expand.

EIA has watched with concern as the Chinese Government has ramped up its Belt and Road Initiative. China’s plan to increase its commercial presence around the world includes setting up traditional Chinese medicine hospitals and centres across South-East Asia and Africa.

Between 2008-15, quotas for the sale of 186 tonnes of stockpiled pangolin scales were approved by the Chinese Government.

The Government already allows pharmaceutical companies and hospitals to buy an annual quota of pangolin scales for medical use. Unless the use of globally threatened wildlife in traditional Chinese medicine is halted, the Belt and Road Initiative is likely to exacerbate the poaching of pangolins in the wild.

Nothing less than a complete ban of domestic trade in pangolin products will protect these rare endangered animals.

Almost all large-scale shipments of pangolin scales seized have been destined for China. A dramatic and sustained reduction in the consumption of traditional Chinese medicines containing pangolin scales is an absolutely necessity if we are to succeed in saving pangolins – the world’s only scaly mammals – from extinction.

Chris Hamley, EIA Senior Pangolin Campaigner

Pangolins risk being eaten to extinction

Pangolin foetus soup (c) Traffic

Pangolin foetus soup (c) Traffic

Pangolins are also under threat because they are killed and trafficked for their meat.

In West and Central Africa, pangolins are widely consumed as bushmeat – wildlife species that are hunted for food. In China and Vietnam, pangolin meat is considered a rare delicacy, a luxury item served in high-end restaurants.

Animals may even be brought out and shown to customers while still alive before being killed and served in a variety of ways. Their meat might be steamed or soaked in wine, while whole pangolin foetuses are used for soup.

Our Running Out of Time report discovered that, in Vietnam, business people and officials consume pangolin meat and other products to convey status and impress their associates.

During our investigations, we have seen menus at restaurants in Laos that openly advertise wildlife meat, including pangolin.

EIA undercover investigator

EIA campaigns to raise awareness of this issue. We urge travellers not to eat pangolins, and warn that wildlife meat may well be illegally sourced, helping to drive poaching and trafficking of endangered animals.

Are pangolins the source of the coronavirus?

In January 2020, news stories started to circulate suggesting that research by scientists in China showed that pangolins could be the source of the coronavirus outbreak. Speculation was rife that pangolins sold in a Wuhan market could have served as a host for the virus, allowing it to pass to humans via the food chain.

In March 2020, scientists established that, along with bats, pangolins are the only mammals documented to be infected with coronaviruses related to SARS-CoV-2.

Although the role of pangolins in the emergence of human SARS-CoV-2 remains unproven, a series of previous diseases over the past 20 years have been linked to animals, including SARS in 2003, the 2009 swine flu pandemic, the 2013-16 Western African Ebola virus epidemic, the 2015-16 Zika virus epidemic and the 2018-20 Kivu Ebola epidemic in the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Even though there is yet to be scientific consensus on the wildlife origin of SARS-CoV-2, this latest news, involving trafficked pangolins, highlights the health risks associated with handling, consuming and using pangolin meats, scales and other body parts

Chris Hamley, EIA Senior Pangolin Campaigner

To prevent devastating future disease outbreaks, we must end the harmful activities that make them likely to happen, including the trafficking and consumption of wildlife such as pangolins.

In the wake of the coronavirus pandemic, the Chinese Government placed a temporary ban on trade in wildlife, including pangolins.

EIA has called for this temporary ban to be made permanent and we stand ready to provide evidence and suggestions to help lawmakers and advocates in China to make this change.

Captive breeding ‘farms’ are not the solution

To develop a supply of pangolin scales for commercial use in traditional Chinese medicine, the Chinese Government has promoted the legal breeding of pangolins in captivity. However, research shows that pangolin farms offer little potential to meet consumer demand for the endangered creature’s scales. This is not a panacea that will help achieve the overall goal of saving pangolins from extinction.

It is clear there are major flaws in China’s current policy of promoting and licensing the captive-breeding of pangolins. Captive-breeding cannot meet demand and is very likely to contribute to the continued decimation of wild pangolin populations across Africa and Asia

Chris Hamley, EIA’s Senior Pangolin Campaigner

Many attempts to breed pangolins in captivity have failed. Pangolins have a very specific diet, feeding exclusively on ants and termites, which is difficult to replicate on so-called breeding farms. They are also highly susceptible to stress and disease, and many of them die soon after entering captivity.

In addition to the problems related to diet and husbandry, their slow reproductive rate means an enormous number of pangolins would need to be maintained to supply the demand.

Finally, even if commercial captive-breeding were to be successful, it is still likely that wild pangolins would continue to be poached since they carry such a high financial value and consumers prefer wild-sourced pangolin products.

Saving pangolins: a timeline

Here are some of the key developments over the years during the battle to protect the rapidly diminishing number of pangolins that live in the wild.

Saving pangolins from extinction: the ongoing fight

1989 China’s Wild Animal Protection Law is enacted but it permits the commercial trade and utilisation of protected wildlife, including for use in traditional Chinese medicine. Prior to this, China had no law for wildlife protection.
2000 International trade in the four Asian pangolin species is restricted to zero under the United Nations Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES).
2007 China announced that licensed hospitals and pharmaceutical companies can buy pangolin scales from a national stockpile for use in traditional Chinese medicine.
2008 Only 25,000 to 50,000 wild pangolins are left in Southern China, according to China’s State Forestry Administration.
2008 Signs of an emerging intercontinental trade in pangolin scales from Africa to Asia are detected by researchers.
2008 Two species of pangolin (Sunda and Chinese) are classified as globally threatened on the IUCN risk register.
2010 EIA starts to raise awareness of global pangolin trafficking issues.
2013 The first global conference on the conservation of pangolins is hosted by the IUCN SSC Pangolin Specialist Group, attracting 40 conservationists from 14 countries.
2014 A further six species of pangolin (Indian, Philippine, white- and black- bellied, giant and Temminck’s) are classified as globally threatened on the IUCN risk register
2016 All eight species of pangolins are given the highest level of protection status by CITES, making it illegal for them to be traded internationally.
2016 China revises its Wildlife Protection law, but provisions allowing commercial trade in protected species are retained.
2018 The World Health Organisation includes traditional Chinese medicine in its global medical compendium and fails to unequivocally exclude the use of wildlife in its definition of traditional medicine.
2018 EIA launches its dedicated Pangolin Campaign to help protect the world’s most trafficked mammal.
2019 Three species of pangolin (white-bellied, giant and Philippine) are pushed further up the IUCN risk register due to the growing impact of habitat loss, poaching and illegal trade.
2020 Following the coronavirus outbreak, China issues a temporary ban on the consumption of wildlife as food, but this fails to specifically address trade in wildlife for other purposes such as traditional medicine.

Saving pangolins: Our ongoing work

EIA’s Pangolin Campaign focuses on three main activities that are dedicated to saving pangolins:

  • gathering intelligence on the illegal trade in pangolins and disrupting criminal networks
  • putting pressure on governments to end the trade in pangolins
  • raising awareness of the devastating impact of the pangolin trade.

Gathering intelligence on the illegal trade in pangolins and disrupting criminal networks

Saving pangolins depends on having a clear picture of the scale and nature of the transnational illegal pangolin trade. Therefore, it is an important part of our mission to investigate this trade and gather hard evidence of pangolin smuggling from Africa to Asia and within Asia.

We use this information to disrupt criminal networks and to persuade governments to take more action to crack down on pangolin trafficking.

Drawing on the data we have gathered about the illegal trade in pangolins around the world, we have produced an interactive map of pangolin seizures. Our map has proven to be a valuable resource for fellow NGOs also dedicated to saving pangolins, as well as for researchers and law enforcement agencies.

This work is ongoing. We are currently teaming up with existing civil society partners in Asia as well as new partners in East Africa to track the criminal syndicates that are trafficking pangolins. We are sharing this information with local law enforcement agencies and aim to encourage a multi-sectoral response to the pangolin trade that will strengthen efforts to target higher-level criminals.

Putting pressure on governments to end the cruel trade in pangolins

Live pangolin outside restaurant, Kings Romans complex, GT SEZ, Laos (c) EIA lr cropped

Live pangolin outside restaurant, Kings Romans complex, GT SEZ, Laos (c) EIA lr cropped

As a charity, we are determined to keep up the pressure on governments to end the lethal trade in pangolins that is driving them towards extinction. We do this through advocacy targeting governments, particularly the Chinese Government, as well as by taking part in international governmental events such as the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES).

Wherever possible, we join forces with like-minded NGOs to share resources and work together to get across our message of the importance of saving pangolins.

Our campaigning work in this area includes calling on:

  • China to eliminate consumer demand for pangolins, including by permanently banning the use of globally threatened species in traditional Chinese medicine
  • China, Nigeria, Uganda, Vietnam and other countries implicated in high volumes of illegal pangolin trade to strengthen their enforcement efforts to tackle transnational pangolin trafficking networks, including through intelligence-led investigations, prosecutions and implementation of anti-money-laundering laws
  • China to end the licensing of pangolin captive-breeding facilities to ensure they are not used to launder illegally-sourced pangolins
  • China to extend its temporary ban on the consumption of wildlife as food and make it permanent.

Raising awareness of the devastating impact of the pangolin trade

EIA first started to raise awareness of the desperate situation of the pangolin more than a decade ago.

Back then, Intelligence Analyst Charlotte Davies described the harsh realities of pangolin trafficking:

The pangolin trade is one of the starkest examples of the commodification of wildlife. They’re one of the most frequently-seized species in South-East Asia. They are seized all over the region, both alive and dead, intact or in pieces, sometimes frozen for transportation purposes. When seizures in excess of 20 tonnes are reported, as in Vietnam in early 2008, then this points to a lucrative, transnational trade of catastrophic proportions.

Since then, we have continued to shine a light on the extremely vulnerable situation of these unique animals, spreading the message of the importance of saving pangolins from extinction.

We are working with like-minded organisations to help shift the cultural attitudes of those who consume and use pangolin products. By encouraging people not to buy pangolin meat or scales and laying bare the horrific suffering that lies behind this trade, we hope to change hearts and minds and increase the pangolin’s chances of survival beyond the next decade.

Saving pangolins: how you can help

A pangolin being held

Hundreds of thousands of pangolins are estimated to be poached every year. To save the pangolin from extinction, we must act now.

Please donate today to help support our vital work to prevent pangolins from being wiped out together. Your donation will help us disrupt the criminal networks that make a profit at the pangolin’s expense. It will enable us to continue to investigate the illegal trade in pangolins, raise awareness of the international ban on pangolin trading and put pressure on China to end domestic trade in pangolins.

Your gift will make a valuable difference by saving pangolins and supporting our ongoing fight to investigate, expose and stop wildlife and environmental crimes around the world.

Please support our work to protect pangolins and other endangered wildlife. The pangolin needs your help – before it becomes extinct.