GABON - VIETNAM

From Africa to Asia, the scaly anteater is being hunted to extinction

The pangolin is the only truly scaled mammal in the world and is, fittingly, nicknamed the scaly anteater. In Gabon, where its meat is particularly popular, and, in Vietnam, where its scales are thought to have healing powers, our Observers have been raising the alarm about a sharp increase in the poaching of this animal on the brink of extinction.

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A "petit pangolin" for sale in a market in Gabon. Photo: IUCN Pangolin Specialist Group.

The pangolin is the only truly scaled mammal in the world and is, fittingly, nicknamed the scaly anteater. In Gabon, where its meat is particularly popular, and, in Vietnam, where its scales are thought to have healing powers, our Observers have been raising the alarm about a sharp increase in the poaching of this animal on the brink of extinction.

All eight species of the pangolin are now threatened with extinction, according to the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN). Worse, this insectivore has become the most-poached animal in the world. The London Zoological Society reports that over the past 10 years humans have captured more than one million of these so-ugly-they’re-cute animals.

WARNING: SOME OF THESE PHOTOS ARE DISTURBING.

Photo taken in a market in Gabon during an investigation sponsored by the International Union for Conservation of Nature Pangolin Special Group and the Imperial College London between May and July 2014. (Credit: IUCN Pangolin Special Group).

"It’s hard to make the villagers understand that the pangolin should be protected”

The pangolin lives in both Southeast Asia (with the largest populations in Vietnam and India) and also in numerous African countries. In Gabon, several NGOs are already taking steps to try to discourage the animals slaughter.

Francesca Baker is a Conservation Science student at the Imperial College of London. She travelled to Gabon between May and July to conduct a mission on pangolin poaching for the IUCN.

There are some levels of toleration for small amounts of hunting of two pangolin species (the petit pangolin and the long-tailed pangolin), but hunting the giant ground pangolin, which is under the greatest threat, is banned. The problem is that most hunters use traps and take whichever animal they get without differentiating between species, even though these traps are illegal [Editor’s Note: The fine is officially 300,000 CFA, equivalent to about 450 euros, and 30 days in prison but it can vary depending on the numbers found.]

In the centre of the country, where most of the hunting takes place, there are very few initiatives to raise awareness about the need to protect pangolins.

If they do exist, they are more symbolic than practical [Editor’s Note: Mont Cristal Parc, for example, uses a giant pangolin as its symbol to raise awareness in the population of this animal’s importance.]

Cooked giant pangolin meat. Photo: IUCN Pangolin SPecialist Group.

"There is a growing demand for pangolin scales from the Asian community in Gabon"

You can find a petit pangolin for sale by the side of the roads for 3000 to 7000 francs CFA  [Editor’s Note: equivalent to 4 to 10 euros] in the centre of the country but you pay the double at the markets in Libreville.

Before now, most of trade involved meat—the pangolin’s scales were often removed. Many Asian workers—especially Chinese—come to Gabon to work for foreign companies want to buy the pangolin’s scales. While most have knowledge of the law, some of them do buy pangolin meat and scales. When the scales are crushed into a powder, they are highly valued for traditional Chinese medicine because they contain keratin [Editor’s Note: The belief is that these scales help women who are having trouble nursing and can also cure psoriasis, a skin condition. However, scientific study has found little evidence that keratin—found in both pangolin scales and other animal parts like rhino horns—has real healing effects.] Every Asian worker that we’ve spoken to has been aware that the trade is illegal, and that's why many deny involvement. Yet the demand from Asian countries drives the market for pangolin products.

The pangolin plays an important ecological role in its native habitats. Their burrowing behaviours aerate and mix the soil, improving its nutrient quality. Their abandoned burrows create additional shelter for other wildlife and their diet of ants and termites make them natural pest controllers. Taking out pangolins would change the natural balance of that ecosystem.

A tree pangolin sold by a roadside vendor in Gabon. Photo: IUCN Pangolin Specialist Group.

After being poached in the forests of Gabon, Africans pangolins often end up on other side of the Indian Ocean. Pangolins in Asia are harder to poach as they have been protected for a longer time—so scaly anteaters imported from Africa help to satisfy the growing demand.

In the past few years, authorities have seized several large illegal shipments of pangolins in Libreville harbor. Rostan Nteme Mba of the Gabonese National Parks Association [Editor’s Note: In French, Agence nationale des parcs du Gabon] told FRANCE 24 that the hidden caches had been found in Chinese boats.

“The pangolins were hidden amongst bundles of wood, impossible to detect during inspections,” Mba said.

During a seizure of pangolin scales in Hong Kong on June 16, 2014, customs officials discovered that the animal parts had been brought on two separate boats, one from Congo and the other from Somalia.

One of our Observers, based in Hong Kong, was able to confirm that traffic in pangolin parts is buzzing in Vietnam during a recent visit to the country.

He found that you could buy 100 g of crushed pangolin scales for 1.6 million dong [Editor’s Note: equivalent to 60 euros] in the capital Hanoi. In smaller villages outside the capital, he saw bottles of “pangolin wine” for sale— complete with a dead baby pangolin floating inside the bottle.

He also found numerous restaurants that offered pangolin meat. Some even offered to kill the animal in front of the customer before cooking it.

In line with our Observer's reports, officials report that traffic in pangolin parts seems to have increased dramatically since the beginning of 2014. Customs officials in China, India, Indonesia and Thailand have intercepted at least 17 illegal shipments since the beginning of the year. In total, they found roughly three tonnes of pangolin parts from African animals.

This post was written with FRANCE 24 journalist Alexandre Capron (@alexcapron).