Pangolins, the world's most trafficked mammals, get major boost in battle against extinction

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The race to save Pangolins
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The race to save Pangolins
A woman holds the scales of a pangolin at a traditional medicine shop in Hanoi, Vietnam September 13, 2016. Picture taken on September 13, 2016. REUTERS/Kham
A woman sells crocodiles and pangolins at a food market in Bata, February 6, 2015. REUTERS/Amr Abdallah Dalsh (EQUATORIAL GUINEA - Tags: ANIMALS SOCIETY)
Slaughtered pangolins are seen on the ground after they were seized by the authority, at an underground garage in Guangzhou, Guangdong province September 11, 2014. According to local media, four men suspected of illegally trading 457 pangolins were arrested on Thursday. Pangolins are listed as a second grade protected species in China. Picture taken September 11, 2014. REUTERS/Stringer (CHINA - Tags: CRIME LAW SOCIETY ANIMALS) CHINA OUT. NO COMMERCIAL OR EDITORIAL SALES IN CHINA
A Malaysian customs officer looks at the frozen pangolins which were found amidst a fish consignment at Port Klang, 30 km northwest of Kuala Lumpur, on April 19, 2002. Listed as protected species under the Wildlife Act, more than 1,200 frozen pangolins bound for Vietnam were seized. Pangolin meat is in great demand as it is believed to enhance one's sexual drive, while its scales are used as guitar plectrum. REUTERS/Stringer BEST AVAILABLE QUALITY ZH/JD
A customs officer shows a pangolin to the media at the customs department in Bangkok September 26, 2011. Officers stopped a pick-up truck carrying 97 pangolins, worth around 1 million baht ($32,372), in the southern province of Prachuap Khiri Khan on Sunday. According to custom officers, the pangolins were en route to be sold in China. REUTERS/Chaiwat Subprasom (THAILAND - Tags: ANIMALS CRIME LAW)
Indonesian police display 657 dead and frozen pangolins in Surabaya, East Java, on August 25, 2016 after thwarting the smuggling operations of these threatened with extinction mammals. The pangolins were smuggled out of their natural habitat in Badas village, in Jombang district, eastern of Java island, to China and Taiwan for their meats, skinn and scales, according to the police. / AFP / JUNI KRISWANTO (Photo credit should read JUNI KRISWANTO/AFP/Getty Images)
Custom officers open a box of frozen pangolin meat inside a container at Tanjung Priok harbour in Jakarta May 26, 2011. Indonesia custom has foiled a smuggling attempt of 7.5 tonnes (7,500 kg) of meat from endangered pangolins from the country's biggest port Tanjung Priok to Vietnam, custom officials said on Thursday. REUTERS/Beawiharta (INDONESIA - Tags: SOCIETY CRIME LAW)
A pangolin is seen at a wild animal rescue center in Hanoi, Vietnam September 9, 2016. Picture taken on September 9, 2016. REUTERS/Kham
A pangolin climbs on a tree at a wild animal rescue center in Cuc Phuong, outside Hanoi, Vietnam September 12, 2016. Picture taken on September 12, 2016. REUTERS/Kham
Employees weigh a pangolin before its release to the forest at a wild animal rescue center in Hanoi, Vietnam September 9, 2016. Picture taken on September 9, 2016. REUTERS/Kham
A customs officer gives water to pangolins before a news conference at the customs department in Bangkok September 26, 2011. Officers stopped a pick-up truck carrying 97 pangolins, worth around 1 million baht ($32,372), in the southern province of Prachuap Khiri Khan on Sunday. According to custom officers, the pangolins were en route to be sold in China. REUTERS/Chaiwat Subprasom (THAILAND - Tags: CRIME LAW ANIMALS)
A newborn baby pangolin climbs the walls of a cage during a news conference at Thai customs in Bangkok April 20, 2011. The Thai custom office showed 175 pangolins they found hidden in a truck heading into Bangkok early this morning. Pangolins, or Manis Javanica, listed as endangered species in CITES (Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species), are found in Southeast Asia. Some people believe that its meat and blood can enhance sexual virility. REUTERS/Damir Sagolj (THAILAND - Tags: SOCIETY ANIMALS)
An animal carer feeds a baby female pangolin with liquified food from a syringe at Bangkok's Dusit Zoo on August 1, 2002, one of several hundred mammals recently seized in raids by Thai police. [Thailand has long been notorious as a transit point for the trafficking of drugs, weapons and people - now a new commodity is being smuggled, the scaly, ant-eating pangolin.]
TO GO WITH AFP STORY BY SUSAN NJANJI Zimbabwe game reserve guide Matius Mhambe holds 'Marimba', a female pangolin weighing 10kgs that has been nine years in care at Wild Is Life animal sanctuary just outside the country's capital Harare, on September 22, 2016. They are ordinarily reclusive and often don't make the headlines, but pangolins are the world's most heavily trafficked mammal and conservationists want their protection scaled up. Demand for pangolin meat and body parts is fuelling a bloodbath and driving the secretive scaly ant-eating mammals to near extinction. / AFP / Jekesai Njikizana (Photo credit should read JEKESAI NJIKIZANA/AFP/Getty Images)
TO GO WITH AFP STORY BY SUSAN NJANJI Zimbabwe game reserve guide Matius Mhambe holds 'Marimba', a female pangolin weighing 10kgs that has been nine years in care at Wild Is Life animal sanctuary just outside the country's capital Harare, on September 22, 2016. They are ordinarily reclusive and often don't make the headlines, but pangolins are the world's most heavily trafficked mammal and conservationists want their protection scaled up. Demand for pangolin meat and body parts is fuelling a bloodbath and driving the secretive scaly ant-eating mammals to near extinction. / AFP / Jekesai Njikizana (Photo credit should read JEKESAI NJIKIZANA/AFP/Getty Images)
TO GO WITH AFP STORY BY SUSAN NJANJI Zimbabwe game reserve guide Matius Mhambe touches Marimba', a female pangolin weighing 10kgs that has been nine years in care at Wild Is Life animal sanctuary just outside the country's capital Harare, on September 22, 2016. They are ordinarily reclusive and often don't make the headlines, but pangolins are the world's most heavily trafficked mammal and conservationists want their protection scaled up. Demand for pangolin meat and body parts is fuelling a bloodbath and driving the secretive scaly ant-eating mammals to near extinction. / AFP / Jekesai Njikizana (Photo credit should read JEKESAI NJIKIZANA/AFP/Getty Images)
MONG LA, MYANMAR - FEBRUARY 17: A pangolin skin is displayed amongst other exotic and illegal animal parts at a stall on February 17, 2016 in Mong La, Myanmar. Mong La, the capital of Myanmar's Special Region No. 4, is a mostly lawless area where Chinese tourists are able to cross the border for exotic poached animals, gambling, and prostitution. (Photo by Taylor Weidman/Getty Images)
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The pangolin — a scaly, bug-eating, cat-sized anteater — may soon gain a higher level of protection as conservationists race to save the mammal from extinction.

Pangolins, native to Asia and Sub-Saharan Africa, are believed to be the most trafficked animals in the world. Their scales are a common ingredient in traditional Asian medicines, and their meat is considered a luxury food in many cultures.

At a world wildlife conference in South Africa this week, countries are expected to give eight pangolin species the top level of protection under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES).

By listing pangolins in Appendix I — a group including species threatened with extinction — nations would agree to ban international commercial trade of pangolins and their parts in all but "exceptional circumstances," according to CITES.

"This decision will help give pangolins a fighting chance," Susan Lieberman of the Wildlife Conservation Society said in a statement from Johannesburg.

"These species need extra protection, and under CITES Appendix I, they will get it," she added.

Pangolins feed on ants and termites, using their claws to break into nests and their long, sticky tongues to lap up insects.

When a predator approaches, they roll up into a ball, with their scaly exterior protecting pangolins from the fangs of larger creatures. Sadly, this ball-rolling approach only makes it easier for poachers to snatch them.

A CITES subcommittee voted late last week to move pangolins into Appendix I from Appendix II, a less stringent designation that allows for some controlled levels of trade, so long as it doesn't threaten the species' survival.

The final CITES category, Appendix III, includes species that are protected in at least one country that has asked other nations to help control the trade.

Pangolins' change in status will become official if confirmed during the summit's plenary session this week. It would then enter into force 90 days later.

Wildlife experts estimate that more than 1 million pangolins have been traded illegally in the past decade — despite earlier efforts to halt the poaching and illegal trade of these nocturnal mammals.

CITES established a "zero annual export quota" for Asian pangolin species in 2000, and many countries in Africa and Asia with pangolin populations have already adopted domestic laws to prohibit the capture and trade of pangolins.

In the United States, one species of pangolin, the Temminck's ground pangolin, is listed as "endangered" under the U.S. Endangered Species Act.

But as Asian pangolin species become harder to find, due to dwindling populations and the zero export quota, traders are turning to African pangolin species to meet market demand, according to U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

Bags of African pangolin scales seized by Hong Kong officials, June 23, 2016.

Bags of African pangolin scales seized by Hong Kong officials, June 23, 2016.

Image: Hong Kong customs

This summer, Hong Kong officials said they discovered more than 8,800 pounds (4,000 kilograms) of African pangolin scales hidden in cargo labeled "sliced plastics" from Cameroon, the government said in a press release.

The haul, worth $1.25 million (HK$9.8 million), was estimated to represent between 1,100 and 6,600 pangolins.

Pangolins don't generally thrive in captivity, and they have a slow reproductive rate and low natural population density in the wild. As poachers snatch rising numbers of pangolins and urban development destroys their habitats, the mammals are increasingly nearing extinction, conservation groups have warned.

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