It’s safe to say that keratin as a cure for such conditions — at least one of which is out of storybooks — is a sham. Yet that didn’t keep more than a million pangolins from being snatched from the wild and illegally traded in the past decade, leading to a 90 percent decline in the animal’s population, according to some conservation groups. The problem is so bad that the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species took action Wednesday at a meeting in Johannesburg.
CITES agreed to ban all international commercial trade of pangolin parts.
The leaders said the quest for pangolins’ keratin scales and meat have made them the most heavily trafficked mammal in the world. They were moved up one important notch on the organization’s endangered list from Appendix II (species not threatened with extinction whose trade is controlled to help them survive) to Appendix I (species threatened with extinction whose trade is permitted only through strict exceptions).
CITES is an international agreement between about 100 governments to protect wild flora and fauna from the ravages of legal and illegal trade. The governments consult closely with nongovernmental groups, such as environmental organizations.
About 300 species of mammals are on the Appendix I list, including rhinoceros that are being killed daily in gruesome hackings for their horns.
Pangolins scarf on termites as well as ants. Their almost-baby faces, with big, black eyes and long snout, makes animal lovers go soft. According to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, one of the federal government’s envoys to CITES, they are found in Asia and sub-Saharan Africa.
African parties to CITES voted unanimously to ban commercial trade. Indonesia was the only Asian country to vote against it. Pangolins come in eight species, including two Chinese varieties that sleep underground during the day and others that sleep in trees. They can’t easily mate to survive: One pup per female is born per year, and the clingy babies hang on the tails of their mothers for three to four months as she forages for food.
“Thought to be among the most trafficked mammals in the world, pangolins are threatened by unsustainable and illegal international and domestic trade of their scales, which are used in traditional Asian medicine, and their meat, which is considered a luxury food in many cultures, as well as by habitat loss,” Fish and Wildlife says on its website.
Toothless, with tongues that ensnare bugs, the creatures’ only defense against predators is to curl in a ball and hope their armor protects them. Ironically, the agency notes, that tactic allows poachers to easily grab and transport them.
Conservation groups that observe their use in places such as Indonesia, Vietnam, China and India report that pangolin scales are never eaten fresh. They’re dried and cooked in oil or roasted with oysters. Based on an exuberant tweet by U.S. Fish and Wildlife International, it’s clear officials there support Wednesday’s decision.
Several conservation organizations joined the celebration.
“The decision of the CITES parties to ban the international commercial trade in pangolin parts will give the world’s most trafficked mammal a fighting chance at survival,” Elly Pepper, deputy director of the Natural Resources Defense Council’s wildlife trade initiative, said in a statement. “These vulnerable, elusive creatures must be protected immediately if we hope to reverse their astronomical declines.”
“This decision gives real hope that extinction of pangolins may be prevented,” Mark Hofberg, assistant campaigns officer at the International Fund for Animal Welfare, offered in a statement. “The rate at which they are being killed is completely unsustainable and cruel. If nothing was done, we could see these amazing creatures disappear within a generation.”