14 Tons of Frozen Scaly Anteaters Seized in Indonesia

Dan Morrison
for National Geographic News
August 7, 2008
Last week Indonesian police seized 14 tons of frozen Malayan pangolins—a kind of scaly anteater—bound for China and arrested more than a dozen suspected smugglers, conservationists announced Tuesday.

The July 30 warehouse raid in Palembang on the island of Sumatra is the latest sign of China's skyrocketing demand for pangolin meat, blood, and scales. (Watch a video of a pangolin in the wild.)

"The pangolins were packed and ready for export to China via seaports in Sumatra and Java," Commissioner Didid Widjanardi of the Indonesian National Police said in a statement.

The black market trade in pangolins is soaring along with China's wealth, conservationists say.

"It appears to be huge—professional and at an industrial scale," said Elizabeth Bennett, director of the wildlife-trade program at the New York-based Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS).

Despite a global trade ban, pangolins are the most frequently seized mammals in Southeast Asia, according to TRAFFIC, the wildlife-trade monitoring network that announced the seizure.

Shipments of pangolins bound for China are regularly intercepted in Malaysia, Indonesia, Thailand, and Vietnam.

(Read: "Wildlife Trade Booming in Burmese Casino Town" [February 28, 2008].)

Prestige Animals

Though their medicinal benefits are unproven, pangolin scales are said to help women lactate and treat ailments such as asthma and the skin condition eczema. Pangolin blood is thought to cure high blood pressure.

Pangolin meat is also considered a popular delicacy.

But the biggest factor driving the pangolin craze and price increase is the animal's scarcity. Though the International Union for Conservation of Nature lists the Malayan pangolin as only "near threatened," pangolin species have been hunted nearly out of existence in China and its neighboring countries.

"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."

Vietnam Connection

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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