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Poachers of Pangolins

This article is brought to you by the International League of Conservation Photographers (iLCP). Read our other articles on the National Geographic Voices blog featuring the work of our iLCP Fellow Photographers all around the world.

Text and photos by iLCP Fellow Paul Hilton.

Pangolins are displayed before being sold onto the black market. The illegal wildlife trade is estimated at US$19 billion per year. Photo: Paul Hilton for WildAid.
Pangolins are displayed before being sold onto the black market. The illegal wildlife trade is estimated at US$19 billion per year. Photo: Paul Hilton for WildAid.

If a scene can be simultaneously destructive and beautiful, it is this; a palm oil plantation bigger than size of Jakarta. Hectare after hectare, row after row and canal after canal of oil palm.

Having spent the best part of 20 years documenting the environmental wins and losses of this part of the world, I am still struck by the majesty of our surroundings. I just wish I was here to bear witness to that, and not the needless decimation of yet another a species; this time the world’s most highly-traded mammal, with more than a million being poached from the wild over the last decade, according to the International Union for Conservation of Nature. The illegal wildlife trade is estimated at US$19 billion a year.

A palm oil plantation, covering thousands of hectares, Indonesia. Photo: Paul Hilton
A palm oil plantation, covering thousands of hectares, Indonesia. Photo: Paul Hilton

I was determined to get on the trail of the poachers behind this lucrative, and highly destructive industry.

On assignment for WildAid, I wanted to get to the source of what was happening to the pangolin. For years, these small, scaly, creatures had enthralled me; peacefully scurrying about under the tables of restaurants I’d visited in Mainland China. One can’t help but be drawn to the pangolin’s innocent nature, and its resemblance to a friendly, flightless dragon.

A pangolin runs across the floor at an outside restaurant, Guangzhou, China. Photo : Paul Hilton for WildAid.
A pangolin runs across the floor at an outside restaurant, Guangzhou, China. Photo : Paul Hilton for WildAid.

Yet, there they also sat in cages, packed together, waiting to be slaughtered as some exotic delicacy. I had to find out what was going on, which meant a trip to Indonesia, home to one of the most critically endangered pangolin species.

A Sunda Pangolin in a box, before being transported across Asia on the illegal wildlife trail to China. Photo: Paul Hilton for WildAid.
A Sunda Pangolin in a box, before being transported across Asia on the illegal wildlife trail to China. Photo: Paul Hilton for WildAid.

As my team and the poachers walked through the night across the palm oil plantation, a pack of dogs begin to bark unknowingly alerting us to the presence of their pangolin prey. Surrounding a tree, they bay and scrape uncontrollably; the lights of the poachers torches allowing us to see amongst the branches what appears to be a big pine cone, but which we know (and the poachers) to be pangolin.

A poacher catches a juvenile Sunda Pangolin in the early hours of the morning, Indonesia. The demand for pangolin meat and scales used in traditional Chinese medicine in China and Vietnam is pushing the pangolin to extinction. Researchers at IUCN say that over a million pangolins were caught in the last decade, which makes them the most illegally-traded mammal in the world. Photo: Paul Hilton for WildAid.
A poacher catches a juvenile Sunda Pangolin in the early hours of the morning, Indonesia. The demand for pangolin meat and scales used in traditional Chinese medicine in China and Vietnam is pushing the pangolin to extinction. Researchers at IUCN say that over a million pangolins were caught in the last decade, which makes them the most illegally-traded mammal in the world. Photo: Paul Hilton for WildAid.
Hunting dogs surround a tree where a pangolin hides, Indonesia. Photo: Paul Hilton for WildAid.
Hunting dogs surround a tree where a pangolin hides, Indonesia. Photo: Paul Hilton for WildAid.
A poacher processes a critically endangered pangolin for it's meat and scales, Indonesia. The demand for pangolin meat and scales used in traditional Chinese medicine in China and Vietnam is pushing the pangolin to extinction. Photo: Paul Hilton for WildAid.
A poacher processes a critically endangered pangolin for it’s meat and scales, Indonesia. The demand for pangolin meat and scales used in traditional Chinese medicine in China and Vietnam is pushing the pangolin to extinction. Photo: Paul Hilton for WildAid.

Like a skunk, the pangolin releases a foul smell when scared, and this specific animal is no exception. While the odour is sufficient to ward off most predators, sadly, it’s not nearly enough for a pack of hungry dogs.

It is then that their poacher masters move in, and with lightning speed, a clean grab of the pangolin’s scaly tail, into a cloth bag it goes, ready to be sold onto the black market to be killed and consumed.

A critically endangered pangolin curls up into a ball as the poacher nears the tree. Photo: Paul Hilton for WildAid.
A critically endangered pangolin curls up into a ball as the poacher nears the tree. Photo: Paul Hilton for WildAid.
A poacher processes a critically endangered pangolin for it's meat and scales, Indonesia. Photo: Paul Hilton for WildAid.
A poacher processes a critically endangered pangolin for it’s meat and scales, Indonesia. Photo: Paul Hilton for WildAid.

It may be a difficult thing to understand; why anyone would want to consume a creature covered in hard, keratin scales but there are plenty of willing customers in China and Vietnam who believe that pangolin meat is a delicacy, and that their shiny, outer casing is best used for human ailments, like rheumatism, skin diseases, to reduce swelling, and to promote lactation in breast-feeding mothers.

Although there are many other remedies on the market, by the time the pangolins reach China, thousands of dollars will be exchanged.

Poacher holds up the skin of a pangolin still with the scales attached.  Photo: Paul Hilton for WildAid
Poacher holds up the skin of a pangolin still with the scales attached. Photo: Paul Hilton for WildAid
Poacher holds up the skin of a pangolin still with the scales attached. Photo: Paul Hilton for WildAid
Poacher holds up the skin of a pangolin still with the scales attached. Photo: Paul Hilton for WildAid
A poacher scales a pangolin skin.  The scales are exported for use in Chinese traditional medicine. Photo: Paul Hilton for WildAid.
A poacher scales a pangolin skin. The scales are exported for use in Chinese traditional medicine. Photo: Paul Hilton for WildAid.

Poachers across Indonesia sell live pangolins to middlemen for US$28 to US$31 per kilo; the average size of a single animal being 6 to 7kg. In 2014 the Sunda pangolin was listed as critically endangered on the IUNC Red List of Threatened Species. Earlier this year on January 26th, 125 kg of pangolin scales were intercepted by Indonesia authorities on route to Hong Kong.

One poacher tells us that he wouldn’t have to go hunting, if he got paid a decent salary working on the plantation.  The average monthly wage for working a full time job on a palm oil plantation is US$47. “I can get 10 times that if I can catch a few pangolins. I have a family to support. When I first started hunting a few years ago, there were only a few hunters around. These days, almost everyone goes hunting. Also, there are no forests anymore. It’s getting harder and harder to find wildlife.”

At about 1am, we stop to build a fire and rest after walking hours through small sections of forest and canals. Without warning, the stillness is rattled by the jarring yelp of a dog galloping towards a giant felled tree, a reminder of the majestic forest, which once grew here, and is now populated to the horizon with oil palm. The poachers follow directly behind to find a young pangolin digging deep inside the hollow log.

A poacher processes a critically endangered pangolin for it's meat and scales, Indonesia. Photo: Paul Hilton for WildAid
A poacher processes a critically endangered pangolin for it’s meat and scales, Indonesia. Photo: Paul Hilton for WildAid

Once again, a poacher grabs the animal, weighing just 1.5kg. What would be the point of keeping such a small creature?  “We’ll keep him,” says the poacher,  “until he’s 5kg or so and then we’ll sell him on. He’s not worth that much right now.” It strikes me that there can be such hollow disregard for the infant pangolin, yet the animal’s assailant sees fit to attribute a gender.

It is such a dichotomy, that I cannot help but question the poacher about his motives. “Many people are angry at me in the community for what I do, but I’m just trying to make a living. They are just jealous that I make more money than them”.

As a species, we now understand that our very existence is delicately interlinked with all living species. Pangolins racing to extinction can only mean we are one step closer to our own demise. What will be the true cost of losing species? Time will tell.

Through effective communication outreaches, the world now knows about the senseless poaching of many animals, such as the elephant, the tiger and the rhinoceros.  But the gentle pangolin still remains largely unknown, even if its survival is currently one of the most precarious.  Help us is spreading the word about the plight of the pangolin by sharing this article, and letting more people know, before the pangolin is gone.

To learn more about what WildAid is doing to save the pangolin, and to support their work, click on the following link: http://www.wildaid.org/tags/pangolin

Other organizations that are working to raise awareness of the pangolin include Save Pangolins and  International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Species Survival Commission Pangolin Specialist Group.

Support iLCP’s ability to bring you important conservation stories like this one.  Click here to support our work.

 

Comments

  1. Melody Veylupek
    United States
    August 27, 8:53 am

    That is UNACCEPTABLE!!!!….LEAVE THE PANGOTINS ALONE with their families!!….my gosh I hate the heartless/senseless foreginers in their 3rd worlds!!

  2. John Zolis
    Alberta Canada
    September 13, 2015, 12:25 am

    clementine
    Do not equate and justify poaching and illegal act and the endangered pangolin is being eaten out of existence.. But morons like you want to justify cultures because a society has in the past considered an activity as excepted by the same logic we should allow slavery ! as far as a culture having its cuisine we could talk about the brutality of Asian cultures who choose to eat local remedies for sexual prowess containing rhino horn which is no different than your own finger nail ! Lets allow that to continue too ! IGIT !
    Your association about human lives like most people who justify animal abuse when people are dying this myopic thinking where they “you” believe that the issues are mutually exclusive ! Those of us who fight for reform fight for all injustice whether it be women’s rights to drive in Saudi Arabia, fighting against child slavery or the extinction of multitudes of animals around the globe!

  3. clementine
    Home
    February 26, 2015, 6:14 am

    What you have to understand guys is that these countries have had the same culinary traditions for thousands ans thousands of years, before Europeans even reached the coasts of Indonesia or Asia etc… Eating Pangolin was for them like you guys eat caviar or some expensive foie gras, athough illegal now in some parts of the world. You try to teach Asians or Africans not to eat what their ancestors believed was “gourmet” food, but none of them is telling you not to eat certain foods back home…Each country has its own cuisine, part of a culture…westerners love to give lessons to the world while they can’t even feed the poor or the homeless…last time that I checked, Africa and I believe some parts of Asia had the healthiest diets in the world … I understand that Pangolin trade must be such a shock for you animal lovers, but how about also saving human lives? All living beings deserve dignity and respect, including the children of Syria dying every day like the homeless person in New York, dying because of the harsh winter.

  4. sue giantomaso
    australia
    February 26, 2015, 12:25 am

    You see these people are all about show….they will spend high dollar on meat that prob tastes crap jyst so they can say they did it! Or can do it….what will you pricks do when everything is dead and gone? Poachers you should be ashamed of yourself and will eventually bring bad luck to you and your famillies….

  5. showmethescience
    USA
    February 25, 2015, 8:39 am

    I’m guessing that isn’t an RSPO plantation?

  6. David Bernazani
    California
    February 24, 2015, 7:14 pm

    Why is it always China and Viet nam? Those two countries are responsible for more animal cruelty and death than all the rest put together, I bet. Well, that’s two countries that’ll never see a penny of my tourist dollars!

  7. jill
    United Kingdom
    February 23, 2015, 11:46 am

    Leave them alone Pangolins are wonderous creatures, how can I help to stop this?

  8. Ana Luisa Luque M
    February 23, 2015, 12:39 am

    A disgrace. They are killers. Very cruel.

  9. Abdallah Al-Khataybeh
    USA
    February 21, 2015, 6:55 pm

    Total disrespect for life. These people are destroying the incredible nature they have. Very stupid, very cruel.