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Hope remains to save the world’s most trafficked animal as it enjoys the spotlight of a global day in its honour

A Giant Pangolin captured on camera walking through a forest in Gabon. Pic courtesy of Brice Roxan Momboua.

Did you know that the world’s most trafficked animal is having its own international day today?

On World Pangolin Day, the University of Sussex is determined to raise awareness of the mammal's plight as they face a desperate fight against extinction.

Our academics have been collating data and visiting remote pangolin habitats in the hope that highlighting the intense pressure that pangolins face will lead to greater protection and a resurgence in their numbers.

To coincide with World Pangolin Day, a new study involving researchers at the University of Sussex has been published revealing animal traffickers are taking advantage of remote ivory trade routes to smuggle pangolins out of Central Africa.

Pangolins are desired in parts of Asia and Africa for their meat, their scales are ground up for traditional medicines to cure everything from skin rashes to high blood pressure while their fresh blood is touted as an aphrodisiac.

Ironically, consuming pangolin scales is no different from chewing your own nails as they are both made of keratin.

Yet, the retail price of pangolin scales has shot up exponentially over recent decades, and in China can now fetch up to $750 per kg.

Pangolins are able to roll-up into a hardened spiral to deter powerful predators like leopards, wild dogs and tigers but unfortunately such defences make them ideal for hunters who just scoop them up in their defensive state.

Animal traffickers are the main reason that all eight species of African and Asian pangolins are listed as either critically endangered, endangered or vulnerable.

Academics at Sussex have conducted two ground-breaking studies investigating the pangolin.

One, led by Daniel Ingram (a member of the IUCN Pangolin Specialist Group) and supervised by Jörn Scharlemann, in collaboration with an international team of researchers, estimates that between 0.4 and 2.7m pangolins a year are hunted from Central African forests, an increase by 150% from 1970 and 2014.

In the other, Dr Alex Aisher spent two years with the Nyishi in Eastern Himalayas – a tribe who do hunt the pangolin but with decreasing frequency as they become scarcer.

The new study, also involving research by Daniel Ingram, shows pangolins are being transported across remote forest borders in a largely successful attempt to avoid increased law enforcement.

In the first-ever study to investigate how criminals are sourcing pangolins from African forests, experts found that local hunters in Gabon are selling increasing numbers of the animals to Asian workers stationed on the continent for major logging, oil exploration and agro-industry projects.

In another significant finding, the team discovered that the price for giant pangolins has risen at more than 45 times the rate of inflation between 2002 and 2014.

The study concluded that the high international price of scales was driving up local costs, with hunters increasingly targeting pangolins to sell them on, rather than for home consumption.

Daniel Ingram, who was involved in the research whilst at the University of Sussex, said:  “We are still learning about the scale of trafficking in pangolin meat and scales but every new finding adds very concerning new details about this trade.

“The link between Asian industrial workers working on major projects in Africa and requests for pangolins is worrying, and warrants further investigation.”

The team, which also included researchers from the University of Stirling, Gabonese researchers and other industry partners, visited communities using pangolins and other wildlife for food, as well as markets in provincial towns and the capital, Libreville, to assess the numbers sold and prices.

There is hope though that by raising awareness, tackling trafficking, and implementing conservation initiatives could bring the pangolin back from the brink.

Since the University of Sussex research quantified the scale of pangolin hunting in Africa, the commercial and international trade of wild-caught pangolins of all eight species has been banned and the fight to save them has been backed by film star Jackie Chan.

It is now hoped that by increasing the spotlight on this incredible animal on its special day, it will help steer pangolin numbers back to the healthy numbers they enjoyed as recently as just 50 years ago.

By: Neil Vowles
Last updated: Tuesday, 20 February 2018