The shipment, worth an estimated US$38.7 million on the black market, also contained 177kg of and carved
elephant ivory.

The pangolin is the only scaled mammal. It’s also threatened by extinction, largely due to trafficking. Image credits: David Brossard.

The pangolin is one of the most trafficked animals on Earth, accounting for as much as 20% of all illegal wildlife trade. The International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) estimates that over a million animals have been poached in 2004-2014, and the trend does not seem to slow down.

“The container was declared to have contained cassia seeds,” Singapore’s National Parks Board, Customs and Immigration and Checkpoints Authority said in a joint statement, adding that the shipment came from Nigeria.

This is the second massive seizure of pangolin scales after a 12.9-ton package was discovered last week, also from Nigeria. That one was labeled as “frozen beef.”

The seizure of 12.7 tons of scales, worth an estimated $38 million, follows last week’s haul of 12.9 tons. The scales in that seizure, the biggest of its kind worldwide in five years, were said to have come from about 17,000 pangolins. Singaporean authorities estimate that the scale capture came from 17,000 and 21,000 pangolins respectively (different species have somewhat differently-sized scales).

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There are two main reasons why these unfortunate animals are trafficked: as luxury bushmeat (in Vietnam and China), and for use in traditional Chinese medicine (and to a lesser extent, to traditional African medicine) — needless to say, there is no science whatsoever supporting these practices. Increasingly, African communities are also using pangolins for spiritual and occult practices.

Tree pangolin. Image credits: Valerius Tygart.

The pangolin is a harmless cat-sized animal which eats ants and termites. It inhabits central and southern parts of Africa, as well as India and south-east Asia. There are currently 8 pangolin species, all of which are hunted and trafficked, and all of which are threatened by extinction — with official IUCN designations ranging from “Vulnerable” to “Critically Endangered.”

Governments and non-governmental organizations have undertaken a variety of conservation efforts to protect pangolins. The pangolin needs to enjoy public support to be able to survive. According to Annette Olsson, technical advisor at Conservation International, one of the problems the pangolin faces is that, unlike more well-known endangered animals, it’s just not cute enough. “It’s not huge and not very charismatic. It’s small and weird and just disappearing,” Olsson commented. The fact that conservationists have found it very hard to breed pangolins in captivity is also an issue: in addition to not having a reliable breeding program, it also means that people are more unfamiliar with the creatures.

In addition to notoriety and conservation programs, pangolins also need firmer legislative support. Under the Endangered Species (Import & Export) Act, the maximum penalty for illegal import, export and re-export of wildlife is a fine of up to $500,000 and/or 2 years’ imprisonment —  hardly a solid deterrent. Hopefully, these seizures will send a strong signal to poachers everywhere.