UGANDA—The small pangolin tucked its head toward its belly and curled its tail around its body. Clad in large scales, it resembled a pine cone. After a moment, the creature—a mammal, despite appearances—uncoiled and raised its slender head. Currantlike eyes blinked and a pointy nose trembled inquisitively. Its feet had tender pink soles tipped with long, curved claws, but it did not scratch or fight.
This animal, a white-bellied pangolin (Phataginus tricuspis), was lucky. It had most likely been illegally caught in a nearby forest not long ago; a tip had led the Uganda Wildlife Authority (UWA) to rescue it. One of its brown scales had been ripped off, perhaps for use in a local witchcraft remedy. But after a long, jarring car ride on bumpy dirt roads, the pangolin was being released back into the wild in a national park. (UWA officials asked Science not to reveal the park's name because that might tip off poachers.) Weighing just 2.5 kilograms, the pangolin heaved as if panting.
The rescue and release was part of a growing global effort to save pangolins, which face a bleak future as the world's most poached and trafficked animal. They are in demand for both their meat and their scales, believed in some Asian countries to have medicinal properties. The past 2 months have seen record-setting seizures of pangolin body parts both in Asia and Africa.
On 16 January, for instance, authorities in Hong Kong, China, seized 8.3 tons of pangolin scales, representing about 13,800 animals, in a shipment bound from Nigeria to Vietnam—one of the largest confiscations of scales ever. Also in January, Ugandan officials confiscated thousands of scales, along with pieces of ivory, that likely originated in the neighboring Democratic Republic of the Congo. In a 7 February raid on a warehouse in Kota Kinabalu, Malaysia, customs officers seized 1800 boxes containing 30 tons of frozen pangolins and pangolin parts. Ironically, the wave of interceptions came just before World Pangolin Day, 16 February.
In 2014, the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) classified all eight pangolin species—four of which live in Asia and four in Africa—as threatened with extinction. And in 2017, the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) banned international trade in pangolins. Several groups and government agencies, including UWA, are now intensifying conservation efforts both in Asia and Africa.
Yet it's an uphill battle. Large endangered wildlife, such as elephants and rhinos, attract tourist dollars, giving policymakers an incentive to save them. But pangolins are small, shy, and believed to be mostly nocturnal. Patchy understanding of their population size, breeding behavior, migratory patterns, and physiology also hampers conservation efforts. "If we don't get a global understanding and support for this species, it will be off the face of this Earth before people even know what it is," says Lisa Hywood, founder of the Tikki Hywood Foundation in Harare, which works on pangolin conservation in Zimbabwe and is expanding its work to other African countries.
If we don't get a global understanding and support for this species, it will be off the face of this Earth before people even know what it is.
Pangolins are unique among mammals because of their scales, which are made of keratin, the stuff of hair and fingernails. They live on a diet of ants and termites—hence their nickname "scaly anteater." The scales are their major defense mechanism; when faced with danger, they curl up in an immobile, hard ball. Sadly, that also makes them easy for hunters and poachers to catch.
Pangolins have long been on the menu for people in Asia and Africa. According to a 2018 study, 400,000 to 2.7 million pangolins are hunted annually in the forests of six Central African countries for bushmeat. (The range is so wide because researchers used three different ways of estimating the harvest, says the paper's first author, Daniel Ingram of University College London, but the lower figure is more likely.)
Demand for pangolin scales seems to be surging, particularly in China and Vietnam, where they are believed to cure ailments ranging from poor circulation and skin diseases to asthma. With Asian species in sharp decline, poachers are increasingly turning to Africa for scales, adding to the bushmeat toll. "There's been a drastic decline in pangolin sightings, particularly the Asian species, but now increasingly with the African species as well," says Lucy-Claire Saunders of WildAid, a conservation group with headquarters in San Francisco, California, that is also sharpening its focus on pangolins. According to an estimate often used by CITES—which covers international trade only—more than 1 million pangolins were traded illegally between 2000 and 2013. That figure may have been conservative.
Pangolins are slow-breeding and give birth to one offspring a year at most, which means depleted populations are slow to bounce back. They are easily stressed and tend to die in captivity, which makes studying their physiology and behavior difficult. So far, efforts to breed them have largely failed. Biologists also know little about their movements and population sizes, which could guide efforts to protect them.
In Zimbabwe, the Tikki Hywood Foundation hopes to begin to monitor released pangolins with small tracking devices fitted to their scales. And last year, members of IUCN's pangolin specialist group and other experts from Asia, Africa, and elsewhere met in Cambridge, U.K., to discuss better ways to estimate populations and monitor the animals. The approaches included radio transmitters, camera trapping, and community engagement projects, says Dexter Alvarado of the Katala Foundation, a conservation group in Palawan, Philippines. The specialist group plans to present its recommendations at the next CITES meeting, from 23 May to 3 June in Colombo.
Researchers are also trying to better understand the trade in pangolins and in scales. "Theoretically, price data can reveal information about markets, including what may be happening to demand and supply, and who may have market power," says Dan Challender, a biologist at the University of Oxford in the United Kingdom who chairs the IUCN group. Recent papers suggest a whole giant pangolin sells for about $280 in Central Africa, and the average retail price for pangolin scales in China was $750 per kilogram in 2013. A study in West Africa, published by Ingram and colleagues this month, identified Cameroon and Nigeria as major exporters of pangolin scales to Asia.
Conservationists want to spread the word about the animals and how to protect them. In Uganda, home to all four African species, few wildlife rangers knew much about the creatures until recently, and most had never seen them in the wild. Now, UWA is working with the Tikki Hywood Foundation to train rangers in handling confiscated pangolins and releasing them in designated safe areas; the foundation also provides medical kits to treat rescued animals. Since August 2017, at least 37 pangolins have been rescued in Uganda.
For other threatened species, a combination of regulation and raising awareness has helped. A ban on shark fin soup at government banquets in China and campaigns by conservation groups have led to a steep drop in sales, for instance. To curb Asian demand for pangolins, WildAid in 2016 launched a campaign that included a video in which Hong Kong film star Jackie Chan implores: "When the buying stops, the killing can, too." But despite the occasional seizure, the ban on pangolin trafficking is not well-enforced in China.
For now, each pangolin saved is a victory. The little one released in the Ugandan national park seemed dazed and did not move at first. Finally it crawled to a tree and climbed a meter or two, using its sharp claws, before losing its grip and curling up in a ball at the foot of the tree. But the UWA official who released the animal thought it would survive. Poachers avoid this part of the park because of ranger patrols, and, with night falling, the nocturnal creature could soon forage for ants and termites. After uncurling, the pangolin crawled into thick brush, hopefully to regain its strength in the darkening forest.
*Correction, 15 March, 8:35 a.m.: A previous version of this story included an incorrect first name for Lucy-Claire Saunders.