Why it’s so hard to beef up protections for the world’s most trafficked animal

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They are ordinarily reclusive and often don't make the headlines, but pangolins are the world's most heavily trafficked mammal and conservationists want their protection scaled up. Demand for pangolin meat and body parts is fuelling a bloodbath and driving the secretive scaly ant-eating mammals to near extinction. Photo by Jekesai Njikizana/AFP/Getty Images

They are ordinarily reclusive and often don’t make the headlines, but pangolins are the world’s most heavily trafficked mammal and conservationists want their protection scaled up. Demand for pangolin meat and body parts is fuelling a bloodbath and driving the secretive scaly ant-eating mammals to near extinction. Photo by Jekesai Njikizana/AFP/Getty Images

In a sweeping move, the international commission in charge of wildlife commerce plans to ban the trade of what some experts call the world’s most trafficked animal, the pangolin.

Populations of this burrowing mammal, known for its scaly exterior and its long, insect-snatching tongue, have been in decline in their native homes of Asia and Africa. Pangolin meat is eaten in both places, while their scales are sought after for their alleged medicinal uses. The number of pangolins left in the wild is largely unknown, but conservation groups estimate their population has dropped by to 80 percent in the last decade.

Last week in response, delegates from 152 nations gathered at a conference in Johannesburg, South Africa where they developed an agreement that bans all international trade of the pangolin except for extraordinary circumstances as part of the CITES treaty. The group is expected to ratify the deal on Wednesday.

Conservationists are praising the agreement but add they are under no illusions about the enforcement of such a broad measure.

“All we can hope is to disrupt the business network that is trafficking the pangolin,” World Wildlife Fund policy director Colman O’Criodain said. “It’s a first step, and we have to be vigilant.”

O’Criodain points out many animals, such as elephants and rhinos, already possess similar protections, but those animals are still poached. CITES has no enforcement power, and upholding its agreements is largely voluntary for its member states.

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Four species of pangolin are native across Asia, but due to trafficking, they’re now listed as endangered or critically endangered. As Asian numbers have dwindled, traders have turned their gaze to the four other pangolin species that live in central and southern Africa. They’ve been under increased threat from traffickers.

The transnational nature of wildlife trafficking, coupled with demand, can wipe out a species in a heartbeat,” said Sam Wasser, director of the University of Washington’s Center For Conservation Biology.

Wasser and graduate student Hyeon Jeong Kim have developed DNA analysis tools so law enforcement can trace where pangolins are being poached. Such tracking can crack down on countries violating the new guidelines and may be key to enforcing the CITES agreement.

Wasser said protecting the pangolin, which plays a key role in the ecosystem as an ant and termite-eater, will preserve biodiversity. But he said disrupting the routes of pangolin traffickers could stop other criminal activity.

“These transnational criminals are not just dealing with pangolins,” he said. “They’re dealing with ivory. They’re dealing with cocaine. They’re dealing with heroin. They’re dealing with human trafficking.”

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