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11/11/2013

Why pangolins are the new rhinos and elephants

Pangolin

Pangolins like this baby are at risk of being completely annihilated by poachers. (AFP/GETTY IMAGES)

Ever heard of pangolins?

Chances are that you haven’t. And why would you – they are obscure critters. They aren’t magnificent like the elephants or endearing like the rhinos. But like elephants and rhinos, pangolins are also being poached and at risk of being quickly and completely annihilated.

Pangolins are is a scaly mammal often also known as a scaly anteater. They are found in Asia and Africa; they are nocturnal and live in hollow trees.

Pangolins, say wildlife experts, are threatened by a trade in its meat and its scales.

These critters are in great demand in China – and in Vietnam and Malaysia – because their meat is considered a delicacy and some Chinese believe that pangolin scales have medicinal qualities and can stimulate lactation, cure cancer or asthma.

The populations in China, Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia have been wiped out. Now, traffickers are focusing on African pangolins. The African species, until now, were being hunted for bush meat. But sky-rocketing demand from China and Vietnam has pushed prices high.

A single pangolin can be priced between $1,000 and $7,000. Pangolin fetuses are considered especially a delicacy in Asia and can cost even more. 

(In Vietnam, some believe rhino horn can even cure cancer.)

Pangolins are protected by an international ban on their trade but experts say their populations have suffered from illegal trafficking. In the past few years, there have been numerous highprofile seizures of pangolins and their meat in Asia. In one recent incident, as much as 10,000 kilograms of pangolin meat was seized from a Chinese vessel near the Philippines.

According to a story in The Guardian earlier this year, pangolins are usually transported live to ensure that the meat is fresh but a large number die of hunger or thirst during transport. “In addition traffickers often inject them with water to increase their body weight,” said the story.

One thing that greatly worries experts is that pangolins (females) usually produce only one offspring a year, not enough to replace the ones which are getting killed by poachers.

It is also tough to breed them in captivity.

So, if a pangolin species goes extinct in the wild, it will likely be gone forever. 

Raveena Aulakh is the Toronto Star's environment reporter. She is intrigued by climate change and its impact, now and long-term. Follow her on Twitter @raveenaaulakh

 

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