The Plight of the Pangolin

Perhaps one of the planet’s most unique animals, the pangolin is roughly the size of a small dog. Unlike any other mammal, the pangolin is covered completely in scales made of keratin, the same material that makes up our hair and nails. There are eight different species of pangolin, native to both Africa and Asia and, in particular, China. There is only one problem: no one’s spotted a pangolin in the wild in China in three years.

All four pangolin species native to Asia are listed as endangered by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), which maintains a Red List of Threatened Species. Their African counterparts are all at least vulnerable. In Laos alone, pangolin populations have plummeted 90 percent in just a decade.


In the last 10 years, poachers have killed more than 1,000 tigers, 11,000 rhinos, and 1,000,000 pangolins. Though it has been illegal internationally to buy or sell pangolin products for years, their meat is considered a delicacy and their scales are used in traditional medicine throughout China and Southeast Asia.

Since making a definitive link between wildlife trade and disease spread–EcoHealth Alliance scientists were part of a team which identified live animal markets in China as the index point of spillover of SARS from animals to animals–it has been a part of our mission of preventing pandemics to put a stop to dangerous wildlife trade practices worldwide. As the most trafficked animals in the world, pangolins are of particular importance to that work.

“They’re defenseless,” EcoHealth Alliance China programs coordinator and IUCN Pangolin Specialist Group member Hongying Li says. “Their only defense is to curl themselves into a ball and poachers can easily pick them up.”

Li recalls seeing pangolins for sale during her childhood in China’s Yunnan Province.

“Eating pangolin meat is a way of showing off,” Li said. “It’s a way of saying, ‘I’m very rich, I can afford pangolin meat.’”

Before joining EcoHealth Alliance, Li worked with the Heishiding and Shimentai National Nature reserves in China. Conservation is a lifelong passion of hers and her background makes her uniquely qualified to tackle the nuanced issue of illegal wildlife trade, particularly in China.


“I just want to do something good,” Li says of her work. “Pangolins are so cute, but they’re so vulnerable. They’re also very important for the ecosystem because they eat a lot of termites and ants, so now, during our research, some people reported that now the ants and termites have become a disaster in the forest because there are no pangolins anymore.”

There is no scientific evidence to suggest pangolin scales have any measurable scientific value, but they are ground up to be used as a remedy for anything from lactation problems to cancer.

Pangolins themselves are not known to carry any viruses which can infect humans, but they do carry parasites in their scales like ticks which can spread vector-borne diseases. Furthermore, tracking the pathways pangolins are trafficked along–due to steep declines in Asian pangolin populations, many are now imported from Africa–can help us map out the routes all wildlife traffickers use.

Our scientists are currently proposing a program to conduct genetic testing on scales seized in order to determine the animal’s country of origin. That way, we can encourage local authorities to scrutinize more strictly incoming shipments from areas from which pangolins are commonly exported. If we can stop the trade of pangolins, we can cut off the illegal trade of other animals as well.

EcoHealth Alliance's Jimmy Lee collects genetic samples from a seized pangolin before releasing it back into the wild
EcoHealth Alliance’s Jimmy Lee collects genetic samples from a seized pangolin before releasing it back into the wild

EcoHealth Alliance is also working to educate populations about the dangers of wildlife trade. A study we conducted in China between 2015 and 2016 found that 72 percent of respondents are involved in wildlife trade. Yet only 28 percent were aware of the potential risks like disease spread.

We also found that 87 percent of those surveyed believed enforcement of policy by the government would be the most effective way to limit wildlife trade. In accordance with those findings, our scientists and local partners are working with members of China’s National People’s Congress to enforce stricter policies and to encourage transparency by releasing government statistics on the number and origin of illegal pangolin shipments seized each year.

The pangolin is a solitary animal, living much of its life alone. They have low birth rates; females have only one baby per year on average. It is up to us changing attitudes in order to save this species from all-out extinction. It is a problem we humans have created and we alone have the power to stop.

“There’s a phrase: compassion conservation,” Li says. “I’m trying to do my best; I want to do something good.”