Pangolin scale seizures at all-time high in 2019, showing illegal trade still booming

Despite increased protections, the scaly mammals continue to be exploited for the traditional Chinese medicine market, according to a report shared exclusively with National Geographic.

Photograph by ISAAC LAWRENCE/AFP via Getty Images
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More than 128 tons of pangolin scales and meat were intercepted globally last year—a 200 percent increase to five years prior.

Photograph by ISAAC LAWRENCE/AFP via Getty Images

Pangolin scale seizures at all-time high in 2019, showing illegal trade still booming

Despite increased protections, the scaly mammals continue to be exploited for the traditional Chinese medicine market, according to a report shared exclusively with National Geographic.

Sales of its scales for traditional Chinese medicine, and its meat as a delicacy, have made the pangolin the world’s most trafficked non-human mammal. The unique creature’s survival was so threatened that in 2016, international commercial trade in pangolins was banned.

But despite those protections, a new report—shared exclusively with National Geographic— finds that law enforcement seizures of pangolin scales and meat reached an all-time high in 2019. Worldwide, more than 128 tons were intercepted—an increase of more than 200 percent from five years earlier.

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A law enforcement officer in Côte d'Ivoire's, masked to protect his identity, holds up the exoskeleton of a seized giant pangolin, whose scales are used in traditional medicine.

The report, published Thursday by the Center for Advanced Defense Studies (C4ADS), a nonprofit that analyzes transnational security issues, provides new data and details that show the trade in African pangolins to Asia for traditional medicine continues to grow.

Often described as “scaly anteaters,” pangolins are the world’s only mammal with true scales, armored plates made of keratin. While these scales can protect pangolins even from the bite of a lion, they’re of no use against humans, the animal’s biggest threat. More than a million pangolins were trafficked between 2000 and 2014, according to the wildlife trade monitoring organization Traffic. (Read more: Poaching is pushing the shy, elusive pangolin to its doom.)

Pangolin experts have long known that the trade in Asia’s four pangolin species has been declining as they become harder to find. Instead, traffickers have turned to Africa’s four species to fill demand, with West and central Africa becoming major hubs. The C4ADS report draws on its own database of wildlife seizures and data from the World Customs Organization and a joint U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service-Zoological Society of London program to help to quantify the extent to which that region is linked to the illegal trade. The report highlights particular points along the supply chain where law enforcement might best concentrate their efforts.

“By co-opting existing bushmeat supply chains in Africa and obfuscating their illegal activity within the traditional Chinese medicine market, illicit actors are trafficking pangolin scales at increasingly alarming rates between Africa and Asia,” says Faith Hornor, a C4ADS program director and co-author of the report.

Record-breaking year

Last year, not only were more pangolin scales seized globally than in any other year for which data is available, but it also saw the biggest individual seizures of pangolin scales on record. Within a single week in April, Singapore intercepted a 14.2-ton shipment and a 14-ton shipment, estimated to be from more than 70,000 pangolins.

Both shipments came from Nigeria, which is the source of more than a quarter of all Africa-linked pangolin seizures with known origins from 2015 through 2019, C4ADS found.

West and central Africa also emerged as clear hot spots for trade. Nearly 90 percent of seized pangolin scales since 2015 originated or have transited through the region, the report says. Furthermore, the size of smuggled scale shipments from the region seems to be growing too, with the average weight increasing nearly tenfold to about 6,700 pounds.

Imperiled pangolins

Pangolins—scaly, shy, and sensitive—are believed to be the world’s most trafficked nonhuman mammals. Their scales, which are made of keratin (the material in fingernails), have no scientifically proven curative

properties but are in demand for use in traditional Chinese medicine. All eight

species are threatened with extinction,

despite a 2017 ban on international commercial trade, and experts estimate that more than a million pangolins were poached from 2000 through 2013.

Trying to stop a deadly market

Law enforcement agencies made 1,500 seizures representing an estimated 700,000 pangolins between 2000 and 2018. Most of the trade, however, goes undetected

and unreported.

Main counties

involved in

trafficking

Major trade flow

Illegal pangolin products are shipped from Asia

to the United

States.

EUROPE

AFRICA

ASIA

CHINA

INDIAN OCEAN

Record breakers

In 2019 Singapore seized a shipment of 14.2 tons of scales—representing an estimated 36,000 pangolins—from Nigeria bound for Vietnam. In 2017 China intercepted

a shipment from Africa of 13 tons of scales (about 30,000 pangolins).

AFRICAN SPECIES

New poaching grounds

Countries in Southeast Asia were once the main suppliers of pangolins to the Chinese market. Traffickers are now turning to Africa

to meet demand as Asian pangolin populations plummet.

Estimated number of

confiscated pangolins based on reported seiz-

ures of bodies, parts,

and scales, 2000-2018

5,000–20,000

1,500–4,999

500–1,499

Fewer than 500

EUROPE

ASIA

AFRICA

CAMEROON

UGANDA

Douala

Yaoundé

Kampala

INDIAN

OCEAN

ATLANTIC

OCEAN

ZIMBABWE

Tikki Hywood

Foundation

Black-bellied

pangolin

White-bellied

pangolin

Temminck’s

ground pangolin

Giant ground

pangolin

Temminck’s ground pangolin

Smutsia temminckii

CONSERVATION STATUS: VULNERABLE

This ground pangolin is the only species that regularly walks on hind legs, using its large tail as a counterbalance. This keeps

its front claws sharp for digging.

Pangolin sizes relative

to one another

Black-bellied pangolin

Phataginus tetradactyla

VULNERABLE

The smallest of the eight species and the only one with black skin, this pangolin has 47 vertebrae in its tail, more than

in the tail of any other mammal.

White-bellied pangolin

Phataginus tricuspis

ENDANGERED

The most common of the tree-dwelling pangolins—and the leading species

poached in Africa—lives in tropical forests

and dense woodlands.

Giant ground pangolin

Smutsia gigantea

ENDANGERED

The largest pangolin can weigh over

75 pounds. Pangolins are toothless and use

a sticky tongue—the giant’s stretches nearly two feet—to feast on termites.

Termite

mound

ASIAN SPECIES

China’s questionable sources

Pharmaceutical companies in China have been allowed to obtain some 29 tons of pangolin scales each year. Companies reportedly use scales from the same decades-old stockpiles, but the origins of the scales aren’t carefully tracked.

Estimated number of

confiscated pangolins based on reported seiz-

ures of bodies, parts,

and scales, 2000-2018

More than 20,000

5,000–20,000

1,500–4,999

500–1,499

Fewer than 500

ASIA

CHINA

TAIWAN

INDIA

Shenzhen

Hong

Kong

PHILIPPINES

INDIAN

OCEAN

INDONESIA

Surabaya

Sunda

pangolin

Chinese

pangolin

Philippine

pangolin

Indian

pangolin

Chinese pangolin

Manis pentadactyla

CRITICALLY ENDANGERED

The only pangolin that hibernates in

winter has been poached so heavily that

by the mid-1990s it had come close to extinction in China.

Indian pangolin

Manis crassicaudata

ENDANGERED

The largest Asian species ranges as far

west as Pakistan. As with other pangolins,

babies less than six months old ride on

their mothers’ backs.

Sunda pangolin

Manis javanica

CRITICALLY ENDANGERED

This ground and tree species is believed

to be the most trafficked pangolin today. Scales help protect pangolins from bites when they feed on ants.

Philippine pangolin

Manis culionensis

CRITICALLY ENDANGERED

This arboreal pangolin is endemic to Palawan and nearby Philippine islands. Hunters sometimes use dogs to track

these and other pangolins.

CLARE TRAINOR, TAYLOR MAGGIACOMO,

AND KAYA BERNE, NGM STAFF.

SOURCES: DAN CHALLENDER, IUCN SSC PANGOLIN SPECIALIST GROUP; ENVIRONMENTAL INVESTIGATION AGENCY; IUCN RED LIST; SARAH HEINRICH, UNIVERSITY

OF ADELAIDE; SCOTT TRAGESER, CREATIVE

CONSERVATION ALLIANCE; KATIE SCHULER, CORAL

& OAK STUDIOS

Imperiled pangolins

Pangolins—scaly, shy, and sensitive—are believed to be the world’s most trafficked nonhuman mammals.

Their scales, which are made of keratin (the material in fingernails), have no scientifically proven curative properties but are in demand for use in traditional Chinese medicine. All eight species are threatened with extinction, despite a 2017 ban on international commercial trade, and experts estimate that more than

a million pangolins were poached from 2000 through 2013.

Conservation status

Vulnerable

Endangered

Critically

endangered

AFRICAN SPECIES

Pangolin sizes relative

to one another

Black-bellied pangolin

Phataginus tetradactyla

Temminck’s ground pangolin

Smutsia temminckii

The smallest of the eight

species and the only one with

black skin, this pangolin has

47 vertebrae in its tail, more

than in the tail of any

other mammal.

This ground pangolin is the only species that regularly walks on

hind legs, using its large tail as

a counterbalance. This keeps its

front claws sharp for digging.

Giant ground pangolin

Smutsia gigantea

White-bellied pangolin

Phataginus tricuspis

The largest pangolin can weigh over 75 pounds. Pangolins are toothless and use a stickytongue—

the giant’s stretches

nearly two feet—to feast

on termites.

The largest pangolin can weigh over 75 pounds. Pangolins are toothless and use a sticky tongue—

the giant’s stretches

nearly two feet—to feast

on termites.

The most common of the tree-dwelling pangolins—and

the leading species poached in Africa—lives in tropical forests

and dense woodlands.

Termite

mound

Pangolin seizures

Pangolin traffickers

Main countries

involved in trafficking

Estimated number of

confiscated pangolins

based on reported seiz-

ures of bodies, parts,

and scales, 2000-2018

Trying to stop a deadly market

Major trade flow

ARCTIC OCEAN

More than 20,000

5,000–20,000

1,500–4,999

500–1,499

Fewer than 500

EUROPE

China’s questionable sources

Illegal pangolin products are shipped from Asia to the United States.

Pharmaceutical companies in China

have been allowed to obtain some 29 tons

of pangolin scales each year. Companies

reportedly use scales from the same

decades-old stockpiles, but the origins

of the scales aren’t carefully tracked.

Giant ground pangolin

SIERRA LEONE

ASIA

AFRICA

LIBERIA

Chinese pangolin

Indian pangolin

CÔTE

D’IVOIRE

NIGERIA

GHANA

CHINA

NEPAL

PAKISTAN

CAMEROON

PACIFIC OCEAN

Black-bellied pangolin

TAIWAN

INDIA

Temmincks ground pangolin

GABON

CONGO

ATLANTIC OCEAN

LAOS

UGANDA

VIETNAM

PHILIPPINES

KENYA

White-bellied pangolin

THAILAND

MYANMAR

Philippine pangolin

TANZANIA

INDIAN OCEAN

MALAYSIA

MOZAMBIQUE

ZIMBABWE

Record breakers: In 2019

Singapore seized a shipment

of 14.2 tons of scales—repre-

senting an estimated 36,000 pangolins—from Nigeria

bound for Vietnam. In 2017

China intercepted a shipment

from Africa of 13 tons of scales

(about 30,000 pangolins).

INDONESIA

New poaching grounds

Countries in Southeast

Asia were once the main

suppliers of pangolins to

the Chinese market. Traffic-

kers are now turning to Africa

to meet demand as Asian pan-

golin populations plummet.

Sunda

pangolin

ASIAN SPECIES

Chinese pangolin

Manis pentadactyla

Sunda pangolin

Manis javanica

The only pangolin that

hibernates in winter has been poached so heavily that by

the mid-1990s it had come

close to extinction in China.

This ground and tree species

is believed to be the most traf-

ficked pangolin today. Scales

help protect pangolins from

bites when they feed on ants.

Indian pangolin

Manis crassicaudata

Philippine pangolin

Manis culionensis

The largest Asian species ranges as far west as Pakistan. As with other pangolins,

babies less than six months old ride on their mothers’ backs.

This arboreal pangolin is endemic to Palawan and nearby Philippine islands. Hunters sometimes use dogs to track these and other pangolins.

CLARE TRAINOR, TAYLOR MAGGIACOMO, AND KAYA BERNE, NGM STAFF

SOURCES: DAN CHALLENDER, IUCN SSC PANGOLIN SPECIALIST GROUP; ENVIRONMENTAL INVESTIGATION AGENCY;

IUCN RED LIST; SARAH HEINRICH, UNIVERSITY OF ADELAIDE; SCOTT TRAGESER, CREATIVE CONSERVATION ALLIANCE;

KATIE SCHULER, CORAL & OAK STUDIOS

This suggests the involvement of well-resourced criminal syndicates, the report says: “Paying for, collecting, and transporting large quantities of pangolin products entails great upfront investment and coordination.” It also likely means that traffickers aren’t concerned about interception by law enforcement as they move multiton shipments worth tens of millions of dollars.

Francis Tarla, coordinator for the Zoological Society of London’s pangolin program in Cameroon, has seen this shift in trafficking on the ground. Prices for pangolin scales on the black market have soared, Tarla said in an email, and “with the high prices, more talented and better organized traffickers entered into play and are prepared to take higher risks.” The combined influences of weak governance, ill-equipped law enforcement, high levels of corruption, a decrease in NGO investment, and a fall in the value of local exports such as petroleum enabled West and central Africa to emerge as a wildlife trafficking hotspot.

The increase in seizures could be a result of several factors. “Yes, the demand [for pangolins] and illegal trading were increasing a lot from 2015 to 2019,” Zhou Jinfeng, director of the nonprofit China Biodiversity Conservation and Green Development Foundation (CBCGDF), said in an email. But “law enforcement is also improved,” he said, leading to more frequent detection of smuggled shipments.

Chris Hamley, senior pangolin campaigner for the nonprofit Environmental Investigation Agency, says illegal trade may have increased because as smugglers have shifted from Asian pangolins to African ones, there was an existing supply chain they could co-opt. “In Africa, there was already the bushmeat trade chains that have pangolins, and so it was almost like a natural byproduct,” Hamley says.

Changes in China

China has long allowed the use of pangolin scales from its native species in traditional medicine preparations, but the Chinese pangolin was hunted to near-extinction in the country years ago. The loss of the native species, combined with a ban on the international trade in all Asian pangolins in 2000, meant that pharmaceutical companies, traditional medicine practitioners, and hospitals had to rely on stockpiles of scales amassed before the ban. Those stockpiles are privately owned by businesses, and each year, the provincial government issues quotas limiting how much can be sold in each region.

On average, the government has allowed about 29 tons—roughly equivalent to 73,000 pangolins—to be sold each year, according to a 2016 CBCGDF report. At that level, the stockpiles should have run out years ago, Zhou told National Geographic in 2019.

China’s National Forestry and Grassland Administration, which oversees wildlife, did not respond to requests for comment.

Other experts agree with Zhou. “It’s very hard to believe that the pharmaceutical companies are able to generate sufficient quantities of scales solely through this stockpile,” Hamley says. He says it’s “very likely” that illegal scales are making their way into stockpiles.

Data and research compiled by C4ADS lends support to this theory. Since 2015, more than 40 percent of the approximately 215 tons of pangolin scales confiscated in Asia were bound for or intercepted in China or Hong Kong, according to the C4ADS report. The quantity of scales seized from shipments in or headed to China and Hong Kong increased by more than 171 percent between 2015 and 2019. That volume indicates there’s huge demand, Hamley says.

China’s system of privately owned stockpiles and self-reported accounting has created a situation where illegal scales easily can be mixed in with legal scales—a “black market that is nested within the legal system,” the report says.

Recent policy changes suggest the Chinese government is moving to phase out the use of pangolin scales in traditional Chinese medicine.

In 2019, the government announced that pangolin scales would no longer be covered by state insurance. In June, for the first time in decades, the country’s list of approved traditional medicines did not include pangolin scales (although it did include patented medicines that contain pangolin). Also in June, the government extended further protections to pangolins, upgrading them to the same conservation level as tigers and giant pandas under China’s National Wildlife Protection Law. (Learn how you can help pangolins.)

Many experts remain doubtful that these measures will make a difference. Hamley calls the changes “a bit of a smokescreen.” Devin Thorne, a C4ADS senior analyst and report co-author, says those changes seem to have no immediate effect but still sees it as a “positive step.”

Zhou has some hope. “Till the end of 2019, the trade was increasing,” he said. But because of these changes, “we believe it will drop starting in 2020.”

Wildlife Watch is an investigative reporting project between National Geographic Society and National Geographic Partners focusing on wildlife crime and exploitation. Read more Wildlife Watch stories here, and learn more about National Geographic Society’s nonprofit mission at nationalgeographic.org. Send tips, feedback, and story ideas to NGP.WildlifeWatch@natgeo.com.