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African Pangolins in Chinese Soup Bowls

Why is it that the bad predictions so often come true?

An article I wrote on the illegal trade in Asian pangolins for National Geographic News nearly five years ago ended on a portentous note. The endangered scaly anteaters, prized as a delicacy and folk remedy in China and parts of Southeast Asia, had been hunted out to such an extent — and the demand for pangolin meat, blood, and scales had increased to such great levels — that conservationists feared African pangolins would soon become an important source for the lucrative Chinese market.

Recent research indicates that’s exactly what’s come to pass. Reports from the wildlife trade monitoring organization Traffic, African media outlets, and scholarly researchers point to well-developed trade in pangolins from African source countries to China.

“A number of seizures of in Asia of African pangolins provide evidence of an intercontinental trade in African pangolins to Asia that has long been suspected, but little is known about the extent of this trade or the figures involved,” Daniel W.S. Callender and Lisa Hywood write in the most recent issue of Traffic Bulletin. Callender and Hywood cite cases in Uganda, Zimbabwe, and Gabon.

A July 2012 seizure of 115 kilograms (253 pounds) of pangolin scales in Uganda is one case in point. Ugandan wildlife officials told the New Age newspaper that alleged smuggler James Busanani had been supplying pangolins from Uganda and the Democratic Republic of Congo to Chinese buyers in Uganda. A separate wildlife seizure in May netted pangolin scales and hippopotamus teeth bound for China.

“Because of the small nature of the animals, one would need to kill at least five pangolins to get one kilo of pangolin scales,” Lilian Nsubuga, a spokeswoman for the Ugandan Wildlife Authority, told the Daily Monitor. “This means that in order to have 115 kilograms of pangolin scales that Busanani was arrested with, about 575 pangolins were killed.”

Trade in pangolins is banned in China and Vietnam. That only makes them more desirable.

“As things become increasingly rare, we’re seeing the demand increase,” Traffic’s Chris Shepherd told me in 2008. In China, “you have luxury restaurants that serve prestige animals. It’s a status symbol to show you’re above the law.”

The trade “appears to be huge—professional and at an industrial scale,” Elizabeth Bennett, director of the wildlife-trade program at the New York-based Wildlife Conservation Society, told me in 2008. Last year, in a paper on the effects of organized crime on the illegal wildlife trade, Bennett noted that 24 tons of pangolin had been seized by authorities worldwide between January 2006 and September 2009.

How many pangolins is that?