International trade ban for world’s most heavily trafficked wild mammal

The world agreeing to crack down on pangolin poaching is possibly the most celebrated success story to come from the global wildlife summit, CITES CoP.

The most illegally trafficked mammal on the planet, the pangolin has been thrown a lifeline after over 180 countries voted for a total ban on any international trading of the species at CITES CoP in Johannesburg.

Trafficking for bushmeat and their beautiful scales, believed in some countries to have medicinal qualities, has left all eight species at serious risk of extinction and ZSL has been heavily involved in pushing for the ban. 

The move is a fantastic win for pangolins and everyone working hard to safeguard their future as pangolins will now be given the strictest protection possible. ZSL's pangolin specialist, Carly Waterman explains what this could mean for the species.

Sunda pangolin, Thailand
A young Sunda pangolin found and re-hydrated near Khlong Nakha Widllife Sanctuary in Thailand.

Pangolins, scaly anteaters native to sub-Saharan Africa and Asia, have been granted the highest level of protection from international trade at CITES CoP17.

This week, all eight species of pangolin were officially transferred to CITES Appendix I, meaning that international trade in pangolins and their parts is forbidden in all but ‘exceptional circumstances’.

The world’s most trafficked wild mammals, pangolins are highly sought after for their meat and body parts. More than a million pangolins are estimated to have been snatched from the wild in the past decade – that’s one every five minutes. 

Evidence from seizures over the past 16 years indicates that the majority of pangolin meat and scales in international trade is destined for China and Vietnam. Here, increasingly affluent consumers are willing to pay high prices for pangolin meat, which is eaten as a luxury dish, and scales which are used in traditional medicines.

Pangolin credit Dan Challender
Pangolins are taken from the wild for their meat and scales.
Pangolins were previously listed in CITES Appendix II, which means trade in the animals and their body parts is strictly regulated. Additionally, since 2000, Asian pangolins have been subject to a zero export quota for trade for primarily commercial purposes.

Unfortunately these measures have proven insufficient to protect pangolins from the threat of international trade. Poaching and illegal trade in Asian pangolins has led to population declines of up to 90 per cent in some species over the past 20 years. With the four Asian pangolins becoming scarcer, traders are now starting to look to Africa to meet demand.

Pangolin on a tree hugging a branch.
More than one million wild pangolins have been killed in the last decade due to poaching.
More than 13,000 pangolins have been seized so far this year, over half of which originated from Africa.

In June and July 2016 alone, customs officials in Hong Kong seized more than 13 tonnes of pangolin scales in three separate shipments originating from Central and West Africa. These grim discoveries equate to approximately 7,000 pangolins.

Recognising that pangolins in Asia, and now Africa, are being driven towards extinction by poaching and illegal trade, countries (or ‘Parties’) overwhelmingly supported proposals to implement a global trade ban. In committee meetings last week there was unanimous support for transferring the Indian, Philippine and all four African pangolins to Appendix I. The Sunda and Chinese pangolins joined them following a vote in which 114 of the 120 Parties present supported an uplisting.

The pangolins’ change in status became official during the summit’s plenary session on Tuesday. It enters into force in 90 days’ time.

Sunda pangolin, Thailand
ZSL has been helping protect the pangolin in their native homes across Asia and Africa.
Although not a silver bullet solution to the threat of trade, the Appendix I listing should bring increased attention to the species, lead to strengthened national legislation, and make law enforcement easier. It was coupled with the passing of a Resolution and two Decisions relating to a suite of conservation actions to combat the illegal trade in pangolins, placing pangolins firmly on the CITES agenda for years to come.

ZSL hosts the IUCN Species Survival Commission Pangolin Specialist Group and is working closely with government partners to protect pangolins in Thailand, Nepal and Cameroon.

We welcome the decision to enhance protection for species that have, until recently, been among the forgotten victims of the illegal wildlife trade. 

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