Skip to content

The pangolin trade in Asia: taking stock

The 16th Conference of the Parties to CITES (Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora) is currently underway in Bangkok, Thailand, running from 3rd-14th March 2013. On March 5th the IUCN SSC Pangolin SG held a side event, with Co-Chair of the group Dan Challender, presenting analyses of the illicit pangolin trade in Asia. Dan’s blog which takes stock of the current trade predicament, is below and on this link:

Unlike some species threatened by commercial international trade such as rhinos, tigers and elephants, pangolins, or scaly anteaters, are also threatened by illicit international trade, but have received very little conservation and research attention. Concomitantly, there is limited knowledge of their ecology, biology and conservation needs. Of the eight existing species of pangolin, four occur in Africa and four in Asia.

Since the inception of CITES in 1975, pangolins in Asia, namely the Chinese, Sunda, Indian and Philippine species (the latter having only recently being recognised as a distinct species) have been listed in Appendix II, which regulates international commercial trade, and to which African pangolins were included in 1995.

Subject to heavy trade in their skins and scales in the 1980s and 1990s, a proposal to ‘up-list’ the species in Asia to Appendix I, which prohibits international trade for commercial purposes, was submitted at the 2000 CITES conference but was rejected, with Parties instead deciding to establish zero export quotas for wild caught specimens traded commercially.

However, despite these measures, there remains a large unrecorded and illegal international trade in Asia. This involves live as well as dead animals which are traded for their meat, considered a luxury in rapidly-growing East Asian markets, as well as their scales, which comprised of keratin, are used in many traditional Asian medicines.

While a lack of knowledge and research on pangolins makes it difficult to determine whether this illicit trade is sustainable, spatial and temporal trade trends presented at a side event hosted by the IUCN Pangolin Specialist Group at this conference suggest this is the case. Evidence suggests that since at least 1995, the principal market for pangolins and their scales, China, has largely depended on imports of pangolins, primarily from Indochina but subsequently from Southeast Asia more widely, with harvesting having generally shifted southward in the region.

However, seizures of pangolins and their derivatives in recent years have also taken place in South Asia, which have mainly been destined for China, meaning in the last decade there have been seizures of pangolins traded illicitly in Cambodia, China, Hong Kong, India, Indonesia, Lao PDR, Malaysia, Myanmar, Nepal, Pakistan, Philippines, Singapore, Sri Lanka, Taiwan, Thailand and Vietnam, involving an estimated tens of thousands of animals annually.

Although there have been no proposals to amend the listing of pangolins at this conference, the dynamics of this trade certainly suggest it could be unsustainable. Consequently, there is an urgent need to conduct more research on pangolin ecology and biology to determine the status of the species and the impact of this trade on populations. At the same time, the dynamics of this trade need to be more fully understood, innovative solutions sought and the application of existing legislative frameworks if pangolins are to be conserved.