*UPDATES and information from BornFreeUSA on the pangolin crisis.
In response to this petition, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) announced on March 15, 2016 that Endangered Species Act protections may be warranted for seven pangolin species.
From Adam M. Roberts, CEO of Born Free USA and Born Free Foundation: “The Endangered Species Act is among the strongest conservation laws in the world, and listing all pangolin species under the Act will be a dramatic and positive step in saving the species from extinction—one that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is uniquely positioned to provide. We congratulate the Service in taking this important initial step.”
We are thrilled with this decision from the FWS, but pangolins still need your help! We’ll soon call on you to write to the FWS in support of protecting these highly imperiled species.
Called the most trafficked species that no one’s ever heard of, cool, roly-poly pangolins are running out of time.
Covered from head to tail in conspicuous overlapping scales, the pangolin, or scaly anteater, is a fantastical creature that could steal the show in any Star Wars movie. With birdlike snout, no forehead, no external ears, no teeth, a tongue longer than its body, skunk-like musk, bird-like gizzard, powerful talons, versatile tail and bright, dark eyes, they’re as endearing as they are unlikely. They can roll up into an impenetrable, sharp-scaled ball, dig a burrow big enough for a man to stand in, or even climb trees. At times, some of them even like to shuffle along on two feet like harmless, geriatric velociraptors.
They’re thoroughly enchanting – Which makes it all the more heartbreaking that humans seem intent on poaching them to extinction. In Africa and Asia, they’re being ripped from the wild by the hundreds of thousands – for their scales (made of keratin, the same as finger nails and rhino horns) – as well as their blood and flesh. In China, pangolins are said to be good medicine – Even, disturbingly, tiny pangolin fetuses, to be served whole, in soup or on a plate, are coveted as a health tonic – or, some say, to bolster a flagging libido. Ironic, since pangolins only have one baby per litter. Obviously, taking out breeding females and their unborn is bad news for the species. Nothing besides humans actually does much hunting of pangolins. Because they are not food – They are not medicine or ornaments, either. They don’t breed to compensate for depredation because they are not prey. They have a different place in the world.
One pangolin can gobble up billions of ants and termites in her lifetime. That’s maybe 20 years of sustainable pest control per pangolin, keeping forests, ecosystems, farms and dwellings healthy and balanced. They’re natural, low-wage organic exterminators. They save humans money, for Pete’s sake. Why on Earth aren’t we treating live wild pangolins like the super-heroes that they are?
Makes more sense than selling them by the kilogram. But instead of valuing, even cherishing living pangolins, the same end-users pushing rhinos to the brink of extinction are eating pangolins into oblivion. Combined with rampant habitat loss, and the fact that pangolins just don’t do well in captivity – struggling even to live, no less breed – time is fast running out for all eight pangolin species.
WCE: Thank you for talking with me, Adam. The pangolin is in serious trouble. What are the biggest threats to the pangolin right now?
Roberts: Well, for us, it’s 2 things – One is the that pangolin is incredibly heavily traded globally, including in the United States, yet little action has happened up until now, to take measurable steps towards saving the species. Which is why Born Free and others are looking at the US Endangered Species Act, and CITES (Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species) to try to provide some remedy to the species before it’s too late. The second major threat is habitat loss.
WCE: We, most of us, understand about Traditional Asian Medicine – But your assertion that Americans are partially fueling this – That’s big. Do you care to elaborate on that?
Roberts: Our research shows that about 100,000 pangolin specimens are being traded globally each year. While most illegally traded pangolins are destined for China and Vietnam, the U.S. is a significant importer. Nearly 27,000 pangolins were imported into the U.S. between 2004-2013. So over the course of ten years, you’re literally looking at tens of thousands of pangolin specimens coming into the country, which, again, is not something that many people talk about. They talk about elephant ivory and rhino horn but we’ve got a considerable number of seizures of these animal’s parts coming into the United States which means, number one, that we’re contributing to the decline of the species, but number two, it’s the responsibility before the US government to take specific actions to try to stem the tide.
WCE: This should shake a lot of people up. Most American’s feel like we’re not the cause, that we’re the solution to problems like this – We tend to think these things are always happening someplace else. Do we know who the end users are, are we basically a channel to the other markets or is the end user actually here in the US?
Roberts: I think for the most part it’s end users here in the US, probably using Traditional Asian Medicine, which we’ve been fighting over the years, in various towns across the country engaging in trade in a number of specimens, whether it’s musk deer or black bear gall bladders, black bear bile, but we do know there’s a huge activity here in the United States. When you think about it, given that pangolins, unlike black bears, are not found in the US, that in order to employ the (pangolin) scales in their traditional medicinal pharmacopoeia, they need to import them from overseas. As I said, with other species, like the bears, even though the Asiatic black bear is coveted most in Traditional Asian Medicine, American black bear gall bladders and bile will substitute fine, it’s the case that there is no other source of pangolin scales but from Africa and from Asia.
WCE: I’m looking at the statistics for the 8 species. Two of them are listed as critically endangered on the IUCN Red List, but obviously all are in steep decline. What are they waiting for to actually grant these animals fully protected status under the Endangered Species Act?* All the species would have been, I would think, covered a long time ago.
Roberts: Yeah, exactly, and I’m not sure why just one of the eight species is listed, historically, but surely it’s either a matter of shortsightedness or lack of information on the other species, but now I think cumulatively there’s more information on the other species in view of the biology and distribution of the species, so not just the trends in population declines but also the levels of trade to warrant listing all 8 species under the ESA and then again, changing the rank of CITES to be sure there’s FULL protection through CITES – but we’re not quite there yet.
WCE: Who’s responsible for the studies (on the pangolin)? Is there new research being done, are there teams on the ground learning about the biology and the distribution that wasn’t in place, let’s say, five years ago?
Roberts: I don’t know that there’s anything substantively new in terms of the approach, I think it’s just the accumulation of data by the IUCN (International Union for Conservation of Nature) and other NGOs, entities like Born Free USA and others, that have taken some time over the last couple of years to focus on this and observe it. The IUCN/SSC Pangolin Specialist Group, will have accumulated significant new trade data we’ll be able to analyze the trend in the species.
WCE: Do you think having, for instance, a ‘Jane Goodall’ of pangolins would make a difference?
Roberts: (chuckles) – I think it always helps to have a high-profile figure to be brought to any campaign. However, I (also) think the data related to pangolins is undeniable in terms of what’s happening on the ground and the trade around the world, and that makes a good case by itself, and I think it would be difficult to argue that these species don’t warrant additional protection under the United States rules.
WCE: If there was something you could leave readers with – because most of my readers, they want action steps, they’ll read an article and say, ‘Well, what can we do to help?”
Roberts: Well, the easiest thing to do is, now that the US Fish and Wildlife Service has come out with a provisional finding that the petition to list those other 7 species of pangolin under the ESA iswarranted, we’re opening a 60-day public comment period during which time ANYBODY can weigh in in support of the petition, and then they’ll go off and do a 12 month finding, doing their research and analyzing the comments to determine whether the petition should go forward or not; so there is a 60-day period in which your readers can weigh in. There will be a link on the BornFreeUSA.orgwebsite to take action on exactly how they can weigh in most effectively.
WCE: Any last thoughts you want to leave my readers with?
Roberts: All too often we don’t understand the impact of a species lost until it’s too late – So we are finding that with the pangolin, most people still haven’t heard of them – at least until recently most people still haven not even heard of the species and now we are finding out that we have to have this kind of ’emergency room’ approach in order to save the animal before they disappear forever. So I think the important thing is just to recognize that these species have a vital role in the ecosystem, and they obviously deserve protection unto themselves –
Roberts: While they may not be as well-known or charismatic as lions, tigers or elephants, we really do have to do what we can to keep them safe in the wild, and we’re talking about a species that is not only found in Africa but in Asia, as well. So there’s a global responsibility that we have to take to conserve these animals before it’s too late. Hopefully people will take action on their behalf.
WCE: That triggers one last question. Do we know yet what – besides eating only small insects like ants and termites (as far as we know) – well, I know everything’s interconnected, like a tapestry – pull one thread and everything unravels – Do we have any inkling yet where that thread starts with the pangolins and where it connects to other natural processes -?
Roberts: I think you’re right, that obviously we’ll end up with a disproportionate increase in their prey, which would be insects, and that could have a negative impact on ecosystems where they’re found – so they are a species that regulates their environment to a significant (degree). I would like to leave you with this quote from Dr Simon Stuart, Chair of the IUCN Species Survival Commission:
“Pangolins save us millions of dollars a year in pest destruction. These shy creatures provide a vital service and we cannot afford to overlook their ecological role as natural controllers of termites and ants.”
WCE: Thank you for your time, Adam.
Roberts: Thank you.
Help save the pangolin –
Asian pangolin species:
Chinese or Formosan pangolin (Manis pentadactyla) – Critically Endangered
Malayan or Sunda pangolin (Manis javanica) – Critically Endangered
Indian or thick-tailed pangolin (Manis crassicaudata) – Endangered
Palawan or Philippine pangolin (Manis culionensis) – Endangered
African pangolin species:
Tree or African white-bellied pangolin (Phataginus tricuspis) – Vulnerable
Giant ground pangolin (Smutsia gigantea) – Vulnerable
Cape or Temminck’s ground pangolin (Manis temminckii) – Vulnerable
Long-tailed or black-bellied pangolin (Uromanis tetradactyla) – Vulnerable
See the African Ground Pangolins here.
See the plight of Asia’s gravely imperiled pangolins in this excellent video, here.
When the public comment period opens for listing the remaining 7 pangolin species under the ESA, leave your comment here.
*Born Free USA explains the IUCN and ESA discrepancy: “2 Asian species are listed as CE, two as E, and all 4 African species are listed as Vulnerable on the IUCN Red List. We are trying to get 7 species of pangolins listed under the ESA. There are 8 species of pangolins and one is already listed under the ESA.”