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Killed for Keratin: The Illegal Wildlife Trade

Illegal wildlife trade is said to be worth $160 billion and is considered the second biggest threat to species survival after habitat destruction. The industry has persisted since the 1990s and contributes to the overexploitation of some of our most unique wildlife. We are so focused on the poaching of megafauna, such rhino and elephant, that we forget we are losing 25-30 smaller species a day. This includes the charismatic pangolin – the world’s most exploited animal.

Wildlife trade encompasses all selling and exchange of wild animal and plant resources. Hotspots for this industry include China’s international borders and the Eastern border of Europe. The world’s most trafficked animals range from the African rhino to the hawksbill sea turtle, but the world’s most exploited animal is the pangolin. The pangolin, also called a scaled ant eater, comprises 8 species. There are four species of pangolin which can grow up to 1.8m long weighing 75lbs.



The reason pangolins are in such high demand is due to the keratin armouring that covers their entire body. A devastating 195,000 pangolins were trafficked in 2019 alone. Similar to uses of rhino horns, pangolin scales are ground up into a fine powder to create traditional medicine, despite the fact that there are no proven medical benefits. Other uses of pangolin are for their meat, considered a delicacy amongst the ultra-wealthy Chinese and Vietnamese populations. 

Due to their continual exploitation, most pangolin species are listed as critically endangered and more recently, some studies believe pangolins are linked to the pandemic, with COVID-19 found in pangolins to be 99% similar to that found in humans. As of today, all species of pangolin are protected under the Convention of International Trade of Endangered Species (CITES), with 168 countries at CITES in 2016 to ban the trade of the animal. In addition to this, in June 2020, China increased protection of pangolins to its pinnacle, by closing a popular loophole often used when consuming the species within the country.

This was then followed up with the banning of pangolin scales in medicine, all of which was a step in the right direction for the species. However, recent studies published in scientific journal, Biological Conservation, suggest that the extent of pangolin trafficking in Nigeria is highly underestimated. Instead, the epicentre of pangolin trade has shifted to Africa – Nigeria being associated with over a million trafficking seizures in the past decade. There was a slight lull in 2020 with travel restrictions due to COVID-19, however now in 2021, trade has fully resumed.

Our partners on the ground in Namibia are working with indigenous hunter gatherers in the Nyae Nyae Conservancy, to protect pangolins. The project aims to engage the local community to protect pangolins through sustainable livelihoods, and while doing so, build up one the world’s most established databases on pangolins in the wild. 

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Header image: The burning of the pangolins is done by law enforcers who captured traffickers, sadly many of the pangolins were already dead, so these are immediately burned to ensure they do not re-enter the illegal trafficking trade.  The conditions pangolins are kept in by poachers and traffickers, tied by wires and stuffed into bags alive, means their survival is already compromised, even when rescued.