For people living outside of sub-Saharan Africa and parts of Asia, the pangolin, otherwise known as the scaly anteater, isn’t a creature they’re likely too familiar with. They may not have even heard of it at all.
After centuries of being used for perceived medical benefits in certain parts of the world, the pangolin remains sadly distinct as the world’s most trafficked mammal.
It can be incredibly difficult to hunt down pangolin traffickers, but Malaysian authorities recently made one of the most impressive seizures of pangolin parts in history. The seizure in the city of Sabah and nearby town of Tamparuli led to the arrest of at least one warehouse employee where all of the parts were being held, and is considered the largest volume-wise ever recorded.
“Detecting large volumes of pangolin smuggling is no easy feat, and Sabah authorities are congratulated for pursuing and taking down this smuggling operation,” said Kanitha Krishnasamy, director of animal rights group TRAFFIC in Southeast Asia.
The seizure revealed about 1,800 boxes of frozen pangolins stuffed into freezers, although the animal rights group believes that the warehouse had been an operating hub for around seven years before it was discovered.
Totaling up the 572 frozen pangolins they discovered in six freezers, 61 live pangolins in cages, and 361 kilograms (approx. 796 pounds) of pangolin scales, the seizure was clearly one that could make a huge dent in the pangolin trade moving forward.
“It is hoped that comprehensive investigations can lead to unmasking the syndicate and networks operating from the state and beyond,” said Krishnasamy.
There’s still plenty of work to be done to curb illegal trafficking of the harmless insect eaters, yet this raid is considered a major victory.
Pangolins are poached mostly for their scales, which are believed to be useful for a number of remedies in certain traditional medicines of the East, particularly in China and Vietnam. Even though science has proven that the scales are made of nothing but keratin—the same substance as human fingernails—and that the illegal poaching does more harm than good, there is plenty of money to be made by selling pangolin scales, body parts, and meat in Asian markets to keep the trade going.
According to certain practices and beliefs, pangolin scales can be used for everything from arthritis relief, to promoting male virility, to warding off evil spirits. So, although global awareness groups have tried to raise attention to the fact that human hunting has pushed them to near extinction, they still remain heartbreakingly vulnerable.
Cousins of the anteater, it’s believed that the adorably scaly creatures live up to 20 years when left uninterrupted by humans. The mammals subsist mostly on insects, hunting for tiny bugs with their long tongues, as they lack teeth, while their scales—which make up roughly 20 percent of their overall body weight—serve as a fantastic defense mechanism against predators when they curl up into a ball. Sadly, this defense does little to deter their biggest threat: humans.