When Thai police raided an exotic meat restaurant catering to Chinese tourists in Bangkok’s Wang Thonglang district this month, the officials found a familiar breed: the body of a pangolin, an endangered species native to Asia and Africa protected by international covenants yet also known to be the world’s most trafficked animal.
China is the world’s biggest market for illegally trafficked pangolins, whose meat is viewed as a delicacy in parts of southern China and whose scales are used in traditional Chinese medicine to treat a host of illnesses varying from joint pain to cancer.
Every year more than 10,000 pangolins are illegally smuggled into China from Southeast Asia—the global entrepôt of pangolin trafficking. The rise in illegal imports is a corollary of diminishing native pangolins in China. From the 1960s to 2004, China’s pangolin population experienced an estimated 94% decline, largely due to the loss of natural habitat and rising demand for the creature as food and medicine.
Now, there are only an estimated 20,000 wild Chinese pangolins. Chinese attempts at captive breeding, meanwhile, have wholly failed: there were only two recorded births in captivity over a four-decade period.
There are eight main species of pangolins, four in Africa and four in Asia. Chinese and Sunda pangolins are listed as Endangered by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN), a wildlife advocacy organization. Indian and Philippine pangolins are considered ‘near threatened’, as are Africa’s giant and white-bellied species.
Asian species of pangolin are protected under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species, or CITES, legislation which bans their removal from the wild for international trade.
Yet demand for the animal is swelling in China. For China’s new rich, consuming pangolins, along with other kinds of high-priced exotic meats, is a status symbol.
This is particularly prevalent in the southern provinces of Guangdong and Guangxi—the Cantonese being China’s most adventurous foodies, willing to try anything from pythons to civets.
At present, a plate of pangolin meat costs 1,400 yuan (US$210) in an upscale Cantonese restaurant. Pangolin scales, depending on the quality and purchase location, can range anywhere from 2,800 (US$420) to 4,000 yuan (US$600) per kilogram.
It is exceptionally easy to buy pangolins in China. In major southern cities, a buyer only has to visit the nearest herbal medicine shop. Usually customers purchase scales for medicinal use, but the owner can usually also find live or frozen pangolins if asked.
If one store is out of stock, the owner can always recommend another. Buyers can also connect with sellers through online chat groups.
The suppliers of those shops normally have connections in Southeast Asia. A recent case in China’s Zhejiang Province involved a supplier surnamed Kan. He owned two storages in the city, one for live pangolins and the other for frozen carcasses. Kan’s connections operating on the China-Vietnam border kept the goods coming.
The profit margin of the pangolin trade is enormous. A pangolin costs no more than 100 yuan (US$15) in Vietnam or Thailand. But once it reaches a major Chinese city, the scales and meat of one animal can fetch anywhere from 15,000 (US$2,250) to 20,000 yuan (US$3,000).
The financial rewards have led to an upsurge in pangolin smuggling in Southeast Asia. Authorities in Malaysia’s Sabah State confiscated 8,000 kg of pangolin scales at a local Chinese business on August 11—the largest ever pangolin-related seizure in Malaysian history.
On August 8, Thai police nabbed a southern Narathiwat province man attempting to transport 93 pangolins that he bought for 10,000 baht (US$312) to Pathum Thani outside Bangkok and onwards to China.
African pangolins are also being smuggled to China via Southeast Asia. Air cargos from African countries containing pangolin scales have been recently intercepted at both Malaysia’s Kuala Lumpur International airport and Thailand’s Suvarnabhumi airport earlier this year.
Pangolin meat and scales are often hard to differentiate from legal goods – smugglers mix pangolin meat with other kinds of frozen meat and pack pangolin scales with plastic of similar color.
Despite official crackdowns and publicized busts, all Southeast Asian countries are complicit in the illegal trade. This is largely due to lax law enforcement and in some cases official corruption.
Vietnam’s and Laos’ loosely regulated borders with China encourages pangolin smuggling into China’s southern provinces, where the animal is in highest demand.
The same goes for Myanmar, which has four known native pangolin species. Myanmar gangs with known ties to authorities in the country’s lawless, conflict-ridden northeast bordering China are known to smuggle pangolins along with other contraband such as firearms and narcotics.
Senior Lao authorities, too, are known to regularly collaborate with wildlife traffickers despite their stated commitment to uphold CITES.
Southeast Asia’s prime location and accommodating environment has made it a springboard for the growing trade of pangolins to China. Until that situation changes, growing Chinese demand for the endangered species will continue to fuel an illicit trade that risks pushing the animal to the brink of extinction.