You may not have heard of these scaly, anteater-like mammals, but they’re the world’s most illegally poached animal. And they’re in danger of becoming extinct.
Saturday marked World Pangolin Day—a day created to raise awareness for these little animals, which are native to Asia and Africa.
Pangolins are shy, nocturnal mammals that curl up into a ball when threatened. They’re often compared to anteaters because their diet also consists of ants and termites, which they capture with their long tongues. Pangolins’ scale-covered exterior helps to protect these gentle animals from predators in the wild, but not from humans hunters, who can easily harvest them up while they’re frozen in a ball.
According to the International Fund for Animal Welfare, there was a “staggering” number of pangolins seized last year.
“Pangolins are falling prey to the ultimate predator: humans,” said Mark Hofberg, campaigns officer of IFAW, in a press release. “The rate at which pangolins are being poached is unprecedented and unsustainable.”
The organization estimates that since 2015, 420,000 pangolins have been poached and trafficked.
The animals are in high demand for their scales and their meat. Their scales — which contain keratin, the same substance in human fingernails — are used in traditional medicine in Asia. In China and Vietnam, the meat is considered a delicacy and is eaten as a symbol of status.
In a huge win for conservationists, a ban on the international trade of pangolins was implemented last fall. But the ban isn’t halting illegal trafficking.
Earlier this month, nearly 3 tons of pangolin scales were seized in Thailand. Officials said that 6,000 pangolins were killed to produce this amount of scales. The scales seized were worth more than $800,000.
“The value we place on pangolins should be for their role in the wild, not as a status symbol,” said Hofberg. “We have won some hard fought victories to protect this exotic species but more needs to be done so we don’t see pangolins go extinct within our lifetime.”