World / Reporter's Journal

World's most-trafficked mammal inches a bit more away from extinction

By Chris Davis (China Daily USA) Updated: 2016-03-16 05:29

Sometimes petitions actually work.

Responding to an onslaught from conservation groups, the US Fish and Wildlife Service today said that Endangered Species Act protections may be warranted — emphasis on "may" — for seven species of pangolin, those other-worldly-looking armadillo-like mammals prized for their scales (and meat) and have the dubious distinction of being one of the most sought-after and poached wild animals in the world.

It's estimated that more than 1,100,000 of the creatures have been trafficked globally over the past decade and five heavy-weight advocacy groups — Born Free USA, the Center for Biological Diversity, the Humane Society International (HSI), The Humane Society of the United States (HSUS) and the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW) — all signed a petition to protect the species by putting it on the Endangered Species list back in July of 2015.

While today's word from Fish and Wildlife is promising, it's still just preliminary. The service will now invite input from scientists and interested members of the public on pangolins' status, vulnerability and threats to decide if the "endangered" status is really warranted.

If it's not, what is?

World's most-trafficked mammal inches a bit more away from extinction

Sleepy, slow, small and scaly, the armored pangolin once inhabited vast portions of Asia and Africa. Their numbers are severely dwindling because of massive and growing demand for their meat and scales, both of which are believed by some practitioners of East Asian medicine to have curative properties — none of which, to the best of this writer's knowledge, have ever been analyzed, tested, proved or disproved.

Pangolin scales, like rhino horn, are basically keratin — like human fingernails — and, in the on-going biochemical reaction of the human body, are inert.

Jeff Flocken, North American regional director of the IFAW, calls the Fish and Wildlife announcement "an important first step".

"Pangolins have been silently killed and trafficked for far too long," he said in a press announcement. "It's time to recognize the grave situation threatening the survival of the species and offer them the protections they rightfully deserve."

Most illegally trafficked pangolins end up in markets in China and Vietnam, but demand for pangolins in the US remains significant, according to Born Free USA. Nearly 30,000 imports of pangolin products were seized in the US over the last 10 years.

"The US is a destination for parts and products of poached pangolins," said Teresa M. Telecky, director of wildlife at Humane Society International. "In 2014, authorities seized more than 11 kilograms of traditional Asian medicines containing pangolin, and seized an additional 460 individual medicine containers that also had pangolin parts."

Telecky said researchers found that pangolin parts were sold in the US both online and in stores.

"Listing all pangolin species as endangered will end the role of the US in this harmful trade," she said.

Putting pangolins under the protection of the Endangered Species Act would mean that all import and interstate sale of pangolins and pangolin parts would be banned — unless the activity promotes the conservation of the species.

"The Endangered Species Act is among the strongest conservation laws in the world," said Adam M. Roberts, CEO of Born Free USA. "Listing all pangolin species under the act will be a dramatic and positive step in saving the species from extinction, one that the US Fish and Wildlife Service is uniquely positioned to provide."

The petition called for protecting only seven of the eight species of pangolin because one of them — the Temminck's ground pangolin of Africa — is already on the endangered list.

Also, because all species of pangolin so closely resemble each other that law enforcement officials have trouble telling them apart, petition included a "similarity of appearance" clause, which Fish and Wildlife said they would factor into the debate over the seven unprotected species.

"Pangolins are such amazing and odd creatures — like little tanks with tails," said Sarah Uhlemann, international program director at the Center for Biological Diversity. "But if we don't act now to protect them, these extraordinary animals will disappear from the planet forever."

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