The Threat to Pangolins

The Swamp Stomp

Volume 19, Issue 11

Pangolins are quite lovable and exotic creatures. They are solitary, shy, and nocturnal. Their size ranges from 12 to 60 inches and they are covered in remarkable scales. Not only do they have unique diets consisting of just a few specific types of ants and termites, but they also constitute their own taxonomic order. Their powerful tongues attach all the way to their sternum, making them even more intriguing.

What makes them even distinctive though unfortunately, is that among mammals, they are the most heavily trafficked non-human mammals. Between the years 2000-2013, an estimated one million pangolins were trafficked, with 67 countries and territories involved. There are many traits about pangolins that make them so coveted by humans. For starters, they make great bush meat and their meat is considered a delicacy in Vietnam and China. However, their most coveted trait is their scales. Their scales are used in traditional medical practices in China and some African countries, including Ghana, Nigeria, and South Africa. The keratin in their scales is what is sought after, and has been known to be of benefit for health problems such as lactation issues, arthritis, and rheumatism.

Although some African countries practice traditional medicine that uses pangolin scales, it is China where most shipments are sent. In China alone, there are approvals of 29 tons of scales yearly in the pharmaceutical business. In this business, there are about 200 pharmaceutical companies and 60 medicines that are produced using the scales.

This measure of trafficking hasn’t gone unnoticed by conservationists. In 2017, CITES (Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species) issued a worldwide ban on commercial pangolin trade. Before this, in 2000, trade of four of the eight species was prohibited. Despite these efforts, pangolin trade is still highly prevalent in the black market. Although officials cannot estimate how many are traded yearly, National Geographic estimates that hundreds of thousands of pangolins are killed each year for trade purposes.

The biggest issue in spreading the word about pangolin conservation is the pharmaceutical business’ “need” for pangolin scales. In the mid-1990s, China hunted pangolins into their seeming disappearance. There were stockpiles of scales that Chinese pharmaceutical companies gathered their needs from, but conservationists doubt that those stockpiles would still be meeting their needs two decades later. Still, even though the scales are coveted greatly in traditional medicine, there is no scientific proof that the scales even have positive effects when used medicinally.

Chinese companies, licensed by the Chinese government to do so, have tried to breed pangolins in captivity for commercial purposes and to keep them out of the trade. However, pangolins are arduous animals to keep in captivity simply because they stress easily, so efforts have not been successful. On top of the difficulties of pangolin captivity, several Chinese companies that try to breed pangolins were raided since authorities were suspicious of their motives. Even though they are trying to do good by keeping pangolins out of the trade and in their own hands, they should instead try and eliminate the use of pangolin scales altogether.

Education is the biggest help to pangolin conservation. There is no scientific proof that pangolin scales have any effect when used medicinally, and there are many known alternatives to the scales. Since breeding them commercially would be a nearly impossible effort to pursue, educating about alternatives in the world of pharmaceuticals could make the biggest impact.

There have also been some groups that have been quite successful rescuing pangolins found in the trade and nursing them back to health to be released. The Tikki Hywood Foundation is a renowned wildlife rescue center that was founded by Lisa Hywood in 1994. They are based in Zimbabwe and have rescued nearly 180 pangolins from illegal trade since 2012. Save Vietnam’s Wildlife is another renowned organization. They are a non-profit rehabilitation group that also takes a big part in pangolin conservation. In 2017, they rescued 407 pangolins. Because of these groups, and several others, many pangolins have had a second chance at life in the wild, free from capture and the dangers of trade. Aside from rehabilitation programs around the world, many organizations (like Save Pangolins and Pangolin Conservation) have helped to raise money to help educate people about why there is a need for pangolin conservation and rehabilitation. With further education about this cause, pangolin trade can hopefully disappear completely from around the world.


Bale, Rachel. “Poaching Is Sending the Shy, Elusive Pangolin to Its Doom.” National Geographic, National Geographic, 15 May 2019,

“Wildlife Rescue.” Save Vietnam’s Wildlife, Save Vietnam’s Wildlife, 2019,

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