Race to save rare pangolin from tragic end

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Story highlights

  • The world's most trafficked animal could be just decades away from extinction
  • Conservationist: "The rate at which they are being killed is completely unsustainable and cruel"
  • Researchers hope by studying pangolin DNA, they can pinpoint the source of trade

Conservationists fear for the survival of the rare pangolin which is thought to be the most trafficked animal in the world. CNN went to South Africa to investigate why this shy ant eater is so threatened.

Tswalu Nature Reserve, South Africa (CNN)The ping is steady at first and then it quickens. Armed with an antenna in one hand and a receiver in the other, researcher Wendy Panaino turns toward the red sand dune. "He's still in his burrow, it's just over, under the dune."

As the sun sets in the horizon in this remote corner of the Kalahari, Panaino's night begins the same way it has for the past several months. She stands absolutely still and silently waits, listening for the sound of scales rubbing against vegetation.
    "You could spend years in the bush and not see one because they are so quiet and so shy most of the time," she says. "You could walk past one and not only know it is there."

    Mysterious creature

    Up until now, that is what has made the ground pangolin so difficult to observe. Without the radio tracking, Panaino says, her research would be impossible to carry out.
    "In terms of free roaming, wild pangolins like this one, there is almost next to nothing known about them," she said.
    What is known is that the ground pangolin, along with the seven other species found across Africa and Asia are under threat in a big way. The world's most trafficked animal is just decades away from extinction.
    Hunted for its meat across Africa, its scales are targeted in Asia where more than 15 traditional Chinese remedies call for pangolin scales as an ingredient. The ingredient though, nothing more than the keratin also found in rhino horn and human fingernails has been proven to have no medicinal benefits.
    "It's an absolute tragedy," said Panaino. "They are so rare and so unique. It's really sad to see their population numbers declining so rapidly."
    A ground pangolin emerges from its burrow to begin a night of foraging for food
    For a researcher who has seen more wild pangolins than just about anyone, that's why every sighting is so special, why she's content to spend solitary nights in the bush chasing the shy and elusive animal.
    "Do you hear it? There it is," the researcher said, turning on her headlamp and heading toward the sound. "My heart is racing."

    A prehistoric look

    The cat-sized animal scampers across the red sand on its back feet, using its front claws to feel its way through the thicket.
    With its tightly interlocking scales glistening against the torch light, it looks prehistoric, but with its little ears and long nose and tongue that it uses to find one ant and termite mound after the other, it also looks harmless.
    Pangolins under threat

    • Pangolins are about the size of a cat
    • They are trafficked for their scales
    • The meat is considered a delicacy
    • Scales are used in traditional medicine
    • Thousands are trafficked each year
    • All species are protected by international treaty
    • No-one knows how many are left

    When threatened, the pangolin will roll up into a ball instead of fleeing -- its scales, tough enough to protect it from lions, but not from poachers.
    A tightly curled ball of scales is exactly how the sample comes out of the freezer at the National Zoo's bio bank in Pretoria. It was a giant ground pangolin from central Africa, the continent's largest and also rarest species, seized by customs and given to the bio bank for research.
    "Like with all wildlife trafficking, the trade is underground," said researcher Ray Jansen. "Just like the ivory, tiger bone, lion bone trade, it's the same syndicates, operating the same way and the customers are the same people."
    Those customers are increasingly in Asia where the four endemic species have been poached to the brink of extinction.
    Jansen brings out a black plastic bag filled with scales, sent from Hong Kong customs after a large bust last year. This year alone, Jansen says, an estimated 15 tons of pangolin scales have left Africa for the Asian market.
    "You can pick up one of these scales and feel how light it is," said Jansen. Now try to imagine fifteen tons of that."
    This month, the world's governing body on wildlife trade voted to give pangolins increased protection, banning all international trade of pangolin parts.
    Wendy Panaino is one of the few researchers studying wild pangolins
    The decision by the 183 governments at the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) in Johannesburg was unanimous for the African species.
    "The rate at which they are being killed is completely unsustainable and cruel," said Mark Hofberg from the International Fund for Animal Welfare. "If nothing is done, we could see these amazing creatures disappear within a generation."

    DNA clues to trafficking

    But laws only go so far, and Jansen worries the illicit trade in the African range states will continue unabated.
    Researchers examine the DNA of  seized pangolin scales in hopes of better understanding its genetics to stop the illegal trade
    "I'd be surprised if 5% of the existing trade was legal. To put it out on the ground and stop things like the bush meat market is incredibly difficult to enforce."
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    Research happening here may help. Jansen and others are using the confiscated scales to track the trade right down to a genetic level.
    By studying the DNA, they hope to discover which species are being trafficked from which hotspots. Only then can meaningful enforcement measures be put in place, said Jansen.
    But even that level of understanding is still years away, researchers admit.
    "We don't know the number of animals in Africa, we don't know the occurrence, no one really knows where they are," said research manager Antoinette Kotze. "Basic research needs to come first."