Pangolin (User kaitlyn tierney, Flickr Commons) Though probably unfamiliar to most, the pangolin, which inhabits tropical regions of Asia and Africa and has been described as “[r]esembling an artichoke with legs and a tail,” presently ranks as the world’s most endangered mammal. Prized for the unique exoticism of their scaly hides, pangolins are among the most valuable and widely traded taxa in the Southeast Asian illegal wildlife trade—a fact that has contributed significantly to the species’ precipitous slide toward extinction. Considered to be highly introverted, nocturnal, and elusive, little is known about pangolin ecology and the species is rarely reported in biodiversity surveys. Biology recognizes eight varieties of pangolin, four in Africa and four in Asia. The International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) has classified the Chinese pangolin (Manis pentadactyla) and the Malayan pangolin (Manis javanica) as “critically endangered,” while the Philippine pangolin (Manis culionensis)and the Indian or thick-tailed pangolin (Manis crassicaudata) land in the “endangered” category. All four African species are classified as “vulnerable.” The African pangolin, however, may soon suffer the fate of its Asian counterpart if more is not done to stem the mammals’ trafficking from Africa to meet rising Chinese demand.

Worryingly, recent signs have indicated that the smuggling of pangolins is on the rise. On July 16 of this year, the South China Morning Post reported the seizure of pangolin scales worth approximately U.S. $2.2 million found hidden in two shipping containers that arrived from Africa via Malaysia. High demand in the mainland Chinese black market is understood to have increased the price of one kilogram of pangolin scales from U.S. $260 to U.S. $645 over the past five years—a staggering price increase of 250%. The most recent efforts at pangolin conservation illustrate that tackling Asia’s illegal wildlife trade is, increasingly, not simply a matter of biodiversity conservation; it is also a security issue, one which governments and law enforcement agencies should not dismiss lightly.

Pangolins are not unprotected by international law. The Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) is an international agreement that regulates the global trade of endangered species to ensure that commerce threatens neither the survival of exotic species nor the livelihoods of individuals that depend on sustainable harvesting and responsible wildlife sales practices. CITES is operationalized via a licensing system that controls the international trade of various species listed on three appendices. The level of protection given to a species depends on the appendix in which it is listed, with the highest level of protection belonging to those listed on Appendix I. Trade in Appendix I specimens is subject to stringent regulation based on a “double control” system applied to importing and exporting states. Appendix II includes species which, while not presently threatened by extinction, may face endangerment if their trade is not strictly regulated to prevent over-exploitation. To date, 180 states are party to CITES. Each member state has established a Management Authority to administer the licensing system and at least one Scientific Authority to advise regarding the effects of trade on the status of protected species.

Pangolins are currently listed on Appendix II of CITES. In addition, a zero export quota for wild Asian pangolins captured for commercial purposes was put in place in 2000, effectively banning international trade in wild-caught Asian pangolins. Despite these legal measures, the international trade in Asian pangolins continues to escalate, and intense poaching to supply the illegal international wildlife trade continues to imperil the survival of the species worldwide. Pangolin meat is readily available in restaurants in Vietnam and China, where it is considered a luxury culinary dish. Pangolin scales are also used in traditional medicine by a number of Asian communities. In China, pangolin scales continue to be prescribed to treat a range of ailments including skin conditions, poor blood circulation, and cancer in hospitals as well as through retailers of traditional Chinese medicine. The near-extinction of pangolins in China in the mid-1990s due to commercial over-exploitation meant that demand had to be met through international supply. This led to increased trafficking in live pangolins (and their scales) from Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos into China through a complex and sophisticated network of intermediaries and smugglers. The Chinese black market, fuelled by insatiable demand and the zero export quota, is driving the price of pangolin scales up. This price signal, in turn, is causing an unprecedented spike in smuggling and illegal trade activity. Thus, what began as a local issue of endangerment limited to the Chinese pangolin is now an international biodiversity crisis that affects other pangolin species as well.

The IUCN Species Survival Commission (SSC) Pangolin Specialist Group recently warned that pangolins are now the most illegally traded mammal in the world, with more than one million individuals estimated to have been snatched from the wild over the past decade. An urgent conservation action plan has been drawn up to attempt to bring the pangolin back from the brink of extinction. But as protective measures targeting the dwindling pangolin population make clear, containing the illegal wildlife trade is not only a task for  conservationists. The illegal wildlife trade is a form of transnational organized crime worth between U.S. $7 and U.S. $23 billion dollars annually, surpassed only by revenues generated by global drug trafficking and the illegal arms trade. Wildlife smuggling routes are often the same ones used for human and drug trafficking. The trade also supports terrorist groups, fuels corruption, and threatens regional and international security. There is evidence that the illegal wildlife trade sustains militant groups like al-Shabaab, the al-Qaeda-backed Somali terrorist group responsible for a devastating attack on a Nairobi shopping mall in September of last year. A recent UN and INTERPOL study on environmental crime reiterated that the illegal trade in wildlife and timber products is directly helping to finance the operations of criminal, militia, and terrorist groups worldwide, as well as threatening the security and sustainable development of many nations.

The problems of lax enforcement, persistent marginalization of the illegal wildlife trade as a serious security threat, and under-resourcing of organizations tasked with countering it must be addressed head-on. Two promising developments at the international level bode well for the future fight against wildlife trafficking. First, CITES is going beyond its original mandate to list endangered species and beginning to take an active role in regulation. The CITES Secretariat is working in concert with other international organizations to, for example, improve border controls and educate customs officers on the identification of illegal wildlife specimens. In the 2000s, CITES also began to conduct wildlife trade policy reviews, which have given member states the opportunity to develop a more holistic approach to both the legal and illegal wildlife trade as well as allowed them to consult relevant stakeholders in evaluating policy performance and address compliance gaps. At the same time, this review process emphasizes the importance of addressing the illegal wildlife trade in the wider context of poverty alleviation, border security, and biodiversity conservation. Secondly, curbing the illegal wildlife trade requires a multifaceted and multilateral approach. Apart from affiliates of the United Nations, numerous nongovernmental organizations, academic institutions, and zoological centers devote time and resources to combating the issue. Through high-profile initiatives such as United for Wildlife, many of them help raise public awareness about wildlife trafficking. Increased coordination amongst various public and private initiatives across the globe, allowing for limited resources to be pooled and leveraged more effectively, will be essential to streamline future counter-wildlife trafficking efforts.

Much remains to be done, however. Pangolins remain under threat, as do many other endangered flora and fauna worldwide. Curbing the illegal wildlife trade is not merely a task for environmental conservation—it is also fundamentally about addressing a cruel and dangerous activity that continues to threaten both global security and the rule of law.