When it comes to endangered animals, most people are aware of polar bears, orangutans, tigers, and sharks. Some may even know of sun bears. However, almost no-one speaks about pangolins, whose population has been decimated by the illegal wildlife trade to the point where extinction lies just over the horizon. In light of World Pangolin Day this February 17th, I hope to bring awareness to the threats faced by what the IUCN consider the most trafficked animal in the world.

I hold pangolins very close to my heart. They’re native to my home country, and they’re very beautiful (honestly, they’re downright adorable). Pangolins are small, toothless, scaled, and nocturnal, inhabiting dense forests or grassland. They’re also vital to maintaining ant and termite populations. These mammals, like armadillos, curl into a ball to protect themselves when necessary; unfortunately, all that armour can’t protect them from bullets and bulldozers.

Of the eight species, the four resident in Sub-Saharan Africa are classed as vulnerable by the IUCN, while the four in Southeast Asia – particularly the Chinese and Malayan – are endangered to critically endangered, with an estimated 88-95%  decline since the 60s (due to elusiveness, actual populations are unknown). Beyond the effects of deforestation, pangolins are primarily killed for human gain. While a known game animal in Africa, their meat is considered a delicacy in China and Vietnam, and their scales desired for medicinal purposes. The poor creatures can be traded living or dead, adult or infant.

The scale of the illegal trade makes it, in every sense of the word, a behemoth. According to research from IUCN and WWF watchdog TRAFFIC, between 117,000 and 234,000 slaughtered pangolins were seized between 2011 and 2013. Given that numbers can only pertain to those seized, the actual volume traded maybe well in excess of 1 million over the last decade alone. Adding to the staggering scale is its internationality. For example, Cape Pangolins – native to Namibia – are most threatened by the value they possess in China and Vietnam compared to domestically, a perception which remains undeterred by the actual low return on investment and potential devastating legal consequences.

Even illegal ivory traders, faced by sanctions against their usual keratin product, often diversify to pangolins. The impact of smuggling from Africa to the East cannot be underestimated. As an example, within three days during June last year, Malaysian authorities seized over 400kg of scales trafficked from Ghana.

So then, what is being done to help these little anteater dragons, and how can you help?

Pangolins are legally protected under national legislation in all their native Asian States. Significantly, 2016 brought the complete criminalization of the trade through the CITES agreement. While this has increased the consequences and difficulty of carrying out trade, it still flourishes. As long as there is demand, there will be supply, and smugglers will always find a way. That’s why it’s imperative that all individuals, regardless of where they live in the world, join together to raise awareness. Consider the successful campaign to ban ivory in China last year, wherein pressure garnered internationally helped push the ban on the legal trade that came into effect this January. Only 19% of the Chinese population sample interviewed by TRAFFIC knew of the ban; but upon informing all involved, 86% supported it. Ignorance is bliss, but knowledge is power. This February 17th, I hope you will join me in spreading the word of their plight, so that a similar success may soon be achieved for these lovely creatures, who have just as much a claim to a peaceful life on this planet as any other being.