Chinese Officials Seize 3.1 Tons of Pangolin Scales

The record-breaking bust shines a spotlight on the plight of the pangolin

Pangolins are prized for their meat and their scales, which are used in traditional Chinese medicine. imageBROKER / Alamy

Customs officials in Shanghai seized 3.1 tons of pangolin scales being smuggled into the country, according to China’s Xinhua news agency. This massive amount could represent roughly 7,500 individuals, the Agence France-Presse reports

The scales, which come from a group of eight unusual-looking armored mammal species found in Africa and Asia, were hidden in a shipping container registered as carrying timber from Nigeria to China. Three people have been arrested in connection with the seizure. One confessed he has been smuggling pangolins into the country since 2015.

Pangolins are generally the size of a raccoon and look somewhat like an artichoke with leg​s, Rebecca Hersher wrote for NPR earlier this year. All eight species of pangolin are listed as vulnerable, endangered or critically endangered, yet the animal is still the most heavily trafficked in the world. But it's not for their adorable looks. Their meat is considered a delicacy in China and Vietnam. Their scales—which are made of keritin, the same substance that makes up human fingernails—are also popular in traditional Chinese medicine and are touted as a cure for cancer and other ailments, the AFP writes.

CITES, the international treaty that regulates trade in endangered species, bumped pangolins up to the highest category for animals threatened with extinction in September, which should give the animals added protection, Hersher reports. This most recent seizure is just the latest in a series of recent massive pangolin finds. In 2013, six tons of live pangolins were seized in Vietnam along with 1.2 tons of pangolin scales. In June, another 4-ton shipment of scales was seized in Hong Kong. In total, the IUCN, the international body that monitors endangered species, estimates that seizures of pangolins and scales since 2012 could represent up to 30,000 African pangolins.

Officials hope that the increased trade restrictions will protect the animals. “[This listing will] give the world's most trafficked mammal a fighting chance at survival,” Elly Pepper, the deputy director of the Natural Resource Defense Council's wildlife trade initiative, says in a statement. “These vulnerable, elusive creatures must be protected immediately if we hope to reverse their astronomical declines of up to 90 percent.”

The pangolin is not the only animal endangered by traditional Chinese medicine (TCM). The poaching of rhino horn is driven by demand from TCM believers. Tiger bone is also a staple of TCM, as are turtles, which are believed to bring longevity. Then there’s shark fins, and bear bile both of which are part of TCM. China is also the main driver of the ivory trade. Besides the pangolin, the most recent victim of the Chinese wildlife trade is the vaquita, the world’s smallest porpoise, found in the Gulf of California. The swim bladders from the totoaba fish, which is also endangered and found in the same waters, are thought to be used in China in place of the locally overharvested yellow croaker in a soup believed to boost fertility. Gill net fishing also snags and kills the vaquita, whose population is down to around 60 individuals.

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