From the largest and the fastest to the oldest and the strongest, many Guinness World Records (GWR) titles celebrate animals for their extreme biology or unmatched abilities.
However, not all superlatives are positive. GWR holds a mirror up to the less savoury elements of the natural world too – records that you would not wish on any species. Nevertheless, in order to increase awareness and help feed the impetus for change, sometimes it’s just as important to recognize the worst of the worst, as it is the best of the best.
One such record is currently held by pangolins, or scaly anteaters. There are eight species of pangolin: four native to Africa and four to Asia. All of them are threatened to some degree, but two more so than the rest. The Chinese pangolin and Sunda pangolin – two Asian species – are currently listed as Critically Endangered on the "Red List" overseen by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN).
Sadly, as a family, these incredible scaly creatures are widely considered the most trafficked wild mammals on the planet today. Between 2000 and 2013, the IUCN estimates that more than 1 million of these ant-eating animals were illegally traded. It's a figure that the Chair of the IUCN’s Species Survival Commission Pangolin Specialist Group, Dr Dan Challender, acknowledges could be on the conservative side, however it is very difficult, and in some cases impossible, to estimate the extent of illegal trade with accuracy.
Asked if the proliferation in pangolin trade is a recent development or a long-established problem, Dr Challender told us: "Illegal trade in pangolin parts, including illegal international trade in pangolins and their parts, has been going on for decades. However, the species have typically been overlooked in terms of concerted conservation attention and action. This has changed in large part due to the growth in profile of the species. This itself has partly been driven by the high volumes of trafficking seen today.
"So, while it has always gone on, it does appear to have increased in recent years. It is difficult to state categorically due to biases in illegal trade data, but it certainly looks that way. The most notable trend emerged in 2008 with the advent of intercontinental trafficking of African pangolin parts – almost exclusively scales – to Asia."
Alarmingly, subsequent reports indicate that the IUCN’s initial figures could be just the tip of the iceberg.
Given that all of these projections can only ever be based on documented seizures that are then extrapolated – some think that intercepted pangolin products represent around 10% of the total illegal trade, others put it higher – it’s impossible to know precise numbers because illegal trade data has a number of inherent biases.
One study published in the journal Conservation Letters in 2018 suggests the offtake level may even be as high as 2.7 million pangolins per annum – in central Africa alone! The authors of the paper determined this high end of a range by compiling reports of pangolins observed in wild meat markets in seven African countries between two periods: 1975–99 and 2000–14. In the later period, they calculate that pangolin hunting has increased by as much as 150%, compared with pre-2000, despite the earlier date range being a decade longer.
So why are pangolins the most trafficked wild mammals? One of the key reasons is that demand for them comes from multiple sectors, as discussed in the below video.
In certain cultures, pangolin meat is considered a delicacy, so many are caught and smuggled wholesale to be sold as a luxury food item. As they become rarer and more difficult to source, desire for them only intensifies. Restaurants vie to be one of the few to offer pangolin on the menu, and less competition means they can hike up prices ever higher.
Pangolins’ trademark scales are even more sought-after, as they are used extensively in traditional medicine. Typically turned into a powder, they are believed to treat everything from acne and rheumatism to neurosis and even cancer, though there are no scientific grounds to support these claims. (The scales are actually comprised of keratin – the same material that forms our fingernails.)
On top of these two (very lucrative) markets, the skins and other parts of the pangolin are used decoratively in art and fashion accessories, and sometimes in religious rituals.
China and Vietnam are two of the most prolific consumers – with widespread, well-established markets for both culinary and medical purposes. However, the pangolin-trafficking industry is very much a global problem.
A report published by TRAFFIC (a wildlife trade-monitoring network backed by a collaborative WWF and IUCN taskforce) flagged that the USA was the major destination for pangolin body parts (almost 80%) exported from Asia in 2010–15. In the same study, several European nations were flagged as “transit hubs”, particularly in the movement of African pangolins to Asia – a growing trend as Asian populations of these animals plummet.
Another reason that pangolins are so vulnerable to exploitation is that they’re relatively simple to catch compared to other larger, better-protected wildlife.
By way of comparison, some 8,000 African rhinos were killed by poachers in South Africa in the decade leading up to 2018, while around 1,000 tigers were taken from the wild between 2000 and 2010. For other trafficked species that have had a greater profile for longer, legislation and infrastructure to deter their capture have been in place for decades, so in many ways pangolin conservation is playing "catch-up".
Despite their armour, pangolins are not equipped to protect themselves, either. Fairly timid, slow-moving creatures by nature, their foraging behaviour makes them easy targets for hidden snares. Plus, while their sharp scales may be an effective deterrent against predators such as lions, their instinct to roll into a ball (rather than flee) works against them when it comes to human hunters.
Poachers train dogs to sniff them out, at which point the pangolin does what’s natural and curls up to defend itself. Unfortunately, this only provides ample opportunity for the poacher to come along and pick it up. The plight of the pangolins is irrefutably dire, but major efforts are underway to try and reverse their fortunes.
In 2012, the IUCN re-established its SSC Pangolin Specialist Group (PSG) with the remit of instigating and supporting pangolin research, as well as driving the discussion around conservation and how strategies should be implemented. To that end, two years later PSG published a global action plan, with recommendations for everything from international monitoring networks to new laws, and breeding and rehabilitation programmes. The chair of the group informed us that the PSG is currently in the process of working with stakeholders to develop more detailed regional and national strategies.
In a major breakthrough in September 2016, CITES – the global body that oversees legislation around the protection of endangered flora and fauna – upgraded all pangolins to Appendix I (its highest level of protection). Essentially, this means that all international commercial trade in wild pangolins is now prohibited, which is a crucial starting point for stopping the decline in its tracks.
However, there’s still a very long way to go, as the PSG's Dr Challender cautions: "There have been many seizures in the last two years, since the CITES App I listing came into force in 2017. However, it is too early to judge whether this measure has had any effect yet."
We can only hope that shining a spotlight on this industry – and ongoing collaborative global efforts between conservationists and governments – can bring these amazing animals back from the brink before it’s too late.
KEY STATS: PANGOLINS IN PERIL
- 300: estimated number of pangolins taken from the wild each day
- 25%: species of pangolin that are Critically Endangered; the other 75% are also under threat
- $3,000: cost that 1 kg (2 lb 3 oz) of pangolin scales can achieve on the open market
- 120 tonnes: weight of whole pangolins and pangolin parts seized between 2010 and 2015 (132 US tons)
- 159: international routes used in the pangolin-trafficking network in 2010–15
HOW CAN I HELP PANGOLINS?
- Donate to pangolin conservation projects
- Spread awareness of pangolin trafficking on social media and professional networks
- Be mindful of the products you buy and the impact that their production has on the environment, and adjust habits accordingly
Watch and read about more record-breaking animals in our Records Showcase