CNN  — 

The second major seizure of pangolin scales in Singapore in under a week has highlighted the plight of one of the world’s most trafficked animals, a shy and secretive beast whose meat, blood and scales are highly sought after in parts of Asia.

On Monday the Singapore Customs and Immigration and Checkpoints Authority seized 12.7 tonnes of pangolin scales packed into 474 bags in a container en route to Vietnam from Nigeria. It was marked as holding “cassia seeds,” according to the agency.

“The pangolin scales that were seized came from two species and are equivalent to around 21,000 pangolins,” a press release says. The haul was worth about US$38.1 million, the Singaporean agency estimates.

It was the second interception of smuggled pangolin scales in five days, with the two seizures totaling a record 25.6 tonnes. The earlier haul, which also originated in Nigeria, also contained 180 kilograms (around 400 lbs) of elephant ivory which had been cut up and carved.

Pangolin scales seized by customs officials in Singapore in April 2019.

Vulnerable species

All eight species of pangolin are protected and given “most endangered” status under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Flora and Fauna.

The cat-sized nocturnal animal, the only mammal to be wholly covered in scales, survives on ants and termites. When threatened, pangolin curl up into a ball and use their scales as protection. This makes them easy prey for poachers, who can simply pick them up.

They are highly valued in China and Vietnam, where their meat is eaten as a delicacy and where they are believed to have medicinal properties – including aiding breastfeeding and curing asthma or cancer. There is no scientific evidence to support any of these beliefs.

A baby Sunda pangolin nicknamed 'Sandshrew' feeds on termites in the woods at Singapore Zoo.

Peter Knights, CEO of WildAid, says several significant seizures, including the latest two in Singapore, point to an increase in the illicit trade.

“Nigeria seems to have become a collecting hub, for all west and central Africa, to suck in these pangolin and then ship them in these enormous shipments to China and Vietnam,” he says.

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What is being done to save the pangolin?
02:39 - Source: CNN

China regulates the sale and importation of pangolin meat and scales, however, existing regulations permit the limited use of legally obtained Pangolin scales in special circumstances, such as use in traditional Chinese medicine.

But according to Knight, the demand is outstripping supply, leading to an increase in illegal smuggling. At this year’s National People’s Congress, members of China’s legislature proposed a ban on the sale of pangolin products for traditional medicine.

Knight says the Chinese government – and in particular President Xi Jinping – has acted in the past to curb the ivory trade, and it now needs a similar intervention to save the pangolin from near-certain annihilation.

“The Chinese pangolin is already right at the brink of extinction and once again we’re looking towards President Xi to save the species,” Knights says.

“China did turn the tide on the ivory trade. Poaching is still a problem but nowhere near the endemic levels of the past. If they said that the legal trade is closing down, that could be the single biggest step taken anywhere in the world to save the pangolin.”

He says that while the scales are still an important part of traditional Chinese medicine (TCM), there are dozens of alternatives available.

“There’s actually no need within traditional medicine to use pangolin scales, they have sustainable alternatives within the pharmacopeia already, so we’re asking, ‘Enough is enough, switch to these alternatives now rather than carrying on for another two or three years’.”

TCM is the single biggest driver of demand for pangolin parts, Knights says, so removing them from the medicine chest would have a huge impact in reducing smuggling to Asia.

“The biggest thing to step down demand would be (for the government and practitioners) to say, ‘TCM is not going to use these any more – these are the alternatives’,” he says. “We’re not against TCM, we’re just against the use of endangered species in TCM.”

Knights says speed is crucial. “If it carries on at this rate we will lose all pangolin.

“China can be the savior of the pangolin – right now it’s the terror of the pangolin but it could be the savior.”