Pangolins are the world’s most trafficked mammal, with more than a million poached in the past decade. But what are pangolins and why are they subject to such relentless slaughter?

What is a pangolin?

Pangolins are small and harmless mammals that have distinctive keratin scales covering their skin – a texture that is similar to fingernails and toenails. They are the only known mammal to produce these unique scales. Pangolins are native to Africa and Asia and live in burrows or hollow trees. They feast on ants and termites by using their long tongues to capture their prey. When threatened they curl up into a tight ball, making it difficult for predators to attack them.

These adorable creatures are the world’s most trafficked mammal, with more than a million pangolins poached in the past decade.

Why are pangolins hunted and sold?

Pangolins are hunted for their meat and scales, which are sold on the black market for:

  • Traditional Asian medicine. This dates back centuries, and is used as an aid for skin infections and sores, as well as claiming to treat infertility, promote lactation, and aid with anorexia.
  • Fashion. Their distinctive scales are used to make handbags, boots, purses, shoes, and belts.
  • Food. Pangolins are sold as a form of bushmeat in Africa for ritual and spiritual purposes, and are considered a ‘luxury’ meat.

How serious is the pangolin trafficking problem?

The pangolin trafficking problem is incredibly serious.

The wild population of the pangolin in the Philippines has been declining over the years by up to 95% due to their ongoing slaughter. According to Sarah Stoner (Director of Intelligence at the Wildlife Justice Commission), the level at which Pangolins are being trafficked is huge compared to what it has been in the past. From 2015 to 2021, more than 330 tonnes of live or slaughtered pangolins (or their scales) have been seized through enforcement action in Asia.

Is it illegal to sell pangolins?

As of 2019, all pangolin species have been prohibited from commercial international trade. Despite the ban, criminal networks continue to traffick pangolins at an alarming rate. The Wildlife Justice Commission identified 27 countries involved as transits, destinations, or sources for pangolin scale shipments.

Vietnam is the biggest recipient of Pangolin scales according to the Wildlife Justice Commission. In Vietnam it is illegal to kill, transport, trade, or sell pangolins and violators may be subjected to 15 years in prison or fined up to $645,000.

Why should we care about the pangolins?

For World Pangolin Day 2022, Sir David Attenborough took part in a video from TRAFFIC, a Cambridge Conservation partner, to raise awareness of the plight of the pangolin. He said:

"Pangolins are very important for the whole ecosystem. The sheer humanity of not looking after such a beautiful, gentle animal as a pangolin breaks my heart."

There are numerous wildlife protection groups and charities such as ourselves who are fighting against the harmful criminal activity of trafficking pangolins, raising awareness of their horrific treatment and fundraising to help and save as many pangolins as possible.

What are IAPWA doing to help stop the illegal trade of pangolins?

In 2024 IAPWA launched a critical rescue operation alongside our partner in the Philippines. Through a series of carefully planned raids, we aim to rescue as many pangolins as possible from the clutches of these traffickers.

In March this year, our team on the ground intercepted an innocent pangolin who was being transported to his death. Upon halting the illegal activity, our team discovered that the pangolin was not being transported to be sold onto the black market, but to be sold for personal consumption to a local buyer, meaning this sweet little pangolin narrowly escaped the tragic fate of becoming somebody’s meal at the other end of his journey. The transporter has been arrested and taken away by the authorities, whilst the pangolin is now safe and recovering after the horrific ordeal it has endured.

In our second raid of the year, one male and two female pangolins were discovered trapped in tiny crates, hidden away in the depths of a forest. They were being prepared to be sold to buyers for their meat and scales. A seven-hour stakeout was conducted which eventually led to a raid of the target area and the confiscation of the pangolins, as well as disrupting the ‘business operations’ of the criminals who were holding them captive. The pangolins are now safe with the government’s wildlife team who will ensure they receive appropriate care and support before releasing them into a safe environment to live out the rest of their lives in peace.

Our most recent raid intercepted a terrified pangolin being transported in a bamboo basket to be sold on the black market for his meat and scales. Alongside the police in the Philippines, the team hunted the criminals down and got the pangolin to safety, putting a stop to yet more abhorrent wildlife trafficking.

Despite this success, our work does not stop here and we need your support.

How can I help save the pangolins?

There are two main ways you can help save pangolins right now – by signing our petition and making a donation to fund our upcoming raids.

Together we can stop the slaughter of pangolins

Written by: Chloe Ashford (IAPWA Volunteer)