"As things become increasingly rare, we're seeing the demand increase," said Chris Shepherd, who heads TRAFFIC's Southeast Asia program.
"You have luxury restaurants that serve prestige animals. It's a status symbol to show you're above the law."
Hunters typically use dogs and nets to track down the shy, nocturnal animals.
"They're incredibly rare to see in the forest," Bennett of WCS said.
In Indonesia and Malaysia, hunters are paid between U.S. $40 and $50 for a kilogram (2.2 pounds) of pangolin scales and $60 for a kilogram (2.2 pounds) of pangolin meat.
That same meat will sell for nearly $600 per kilogram at a restaurant in China, according to some estimates.
Hunting "is having a very great impact" on pangolin numbers, in part because the animals have a very low reproduction rate, said Mark Auliya, TRAFFIC's science officer, and a National Geographic Conservation Trust grantee. (The National Geographic Society owns National Geographic News.)
A female pangolin reaches maturity relatively late in life and gives birth to one offspring at a time. Overall "very little is known" of the pangolins feeding, mating, and ranging habits, Auliya said.
"They're overlooked scientifically. A lot has to be done or these animals will be wiped out."
Recent pangolin seizures range from small busts involving a few live animals to massive shipments containing tons of dead and skinned pangolins.
On July 20 police at a checkpoint in Shenzhen, China, seized 11 live pangolins hidden inside a white minibus. On June 5 police in Guangdong Province arrested two men for illegally transporting 82 live pangolins.
But those arrests pale in comparison with seizures that Vietnamese customs officers made in late February and early March—totaling more than 24 tons of pangolin meat and scales.
(Related: "Vietnam Becoming Asia's Illegal Animal 'Supermarket,' Experts Warn" [September 13, 2006].)
The pangolins were chilled in Styrofoam boxes—shipping documents listed them as frozen fish. Conservationists in Vietnam tracked the shipment back to an exporter in Indonesia.
The Vietnam seizures led to the July 30 Indonesian raids.
Next Stop: Africa
Raids like the one on July 30 are the result of increased cooperation between law enforcement agencies and conservation groups, TRAFFIC's Shepherd said.
In recent years TRAFFIC has trained more than a thousand police, customs, and wildlife officers in Southeast Asia in an area of enforcement that has traditionally been a low priority.
But there is little optimism that the increased crackdowns will come in time to save Asia's pangolins.
Conservationists now fear that African pangolins may be next on the menu once Asian pangolins are gone. Shepherd said there are already indications that "pangolins from Africa are appearing on the Chinese market."
Trade in African pangolins could be eased by China's extensive investments on that continent, Bennett of WCS added.
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