Philippines, April 13, 2013— The Philippine Coast Guard and marine park rangers at Tubbataha Reefs Natural Park discovered an estimated 2000 frozen pangolins on a Chinese fishing vessel which had run aground. The vessel is reported to have come from Indonesia.

Chinese fishing vessel F/V Ming Long Yun (bow number 63168) run aground on Tubbataha’s North Atoll in Tubbataha Reefs Natural Park. 
(Photo 10 April 2013 by Phillippine Naval Forces West)

    An inspection of the hold turned up four hundred boxes each containing four or five dressed pangolins. Twelve Chinese crewmen aboard the ship were taken into custody and charged with poaching, attempted bribery of marine park rangers and several violations of the Tubbataha Reefs Natural Park Act.

Inspecting frozen pangolin carcasses from the Chinese vessel.

    The crewmen face a dozen years in prison and fines up to $300,000 for the poaching, however wildlife criminals are rarely sentenced to the full extent of the law.

    While most news of illegal wildlife trade involves elephants, rhinos, and big cats, the Pangolin, also known as the scaly anteater, is the most illegally traded animal on earth.

    Pangolins are highly valued in China for their meat and scales, and supposed medicinal properties. A soup made with pangolin fetus is considered a delicacy.

    Pangolin confiscated from a smuggler in Sumatra. (Photo: Jefri Tarigan)

    Pangolins seized in North Sumatra.

    Pangolins are nocturnal and solitary animals that spend most of their time in trees. They move slowly, have no teeth, and their only defense mechanism is to curl up into a ball.

    The decimating of the species is simply astounding. In 2012 an estimated 60,000 of the animals were killed in the illegal trade.

    Seizures so far in 2013 are more alarming still.

    Hornbill casques are used in traditional medicines and also carved into decorative trinkets. (Photo: Derek Ramsey/Wiki Commons)

    Part of Malaysia’s 5th pangolin bust of the year in 2012. This seizure totaled 46 individuals. (Photo: Dan Bennett)

    In January, customs officers at Jakarta International Airport nabbed four Chinese nationals who were attempting to smuggle 189 pangolin skins and 248 hornbill casques out of Indonesia and presumably into China. Pangolin skins and hornbill casques are both prized in traditional medicines. Hornbill casques are also carved into decorative trinkets. Both species are in decline, due to a combination of illegal trade and deforestation.

    In March, over 200 live pangolins were seized within 10 days in SE Asia:

    • Officials from the Department of Wildlife and National Parks in Malaysia, seized 133 pangolins at Kuala Lumpur International Airport (KLIA). The animals — declared as “live crabs” by the shipper — were headed to Vientiane, Laos.
    • One week later, the Thai navy intercepted wildlife traffickers on the Mekong River near Chiangrai and confiscated 104 pangolins destined for China, via Laos. Thailand is a hub for traffickers of all endangered species. The two pangolin traffickers — who confessed they transported the animals from the Thai-Malaysian border — were released on bail within three hours of their arrest. The rescue of 104 live pangolins turned into a tragedy when, according to Wildlife Friends Foundation Thailand (WFFT), the pangolins were left at the police station and packed into plastic crates without care for over 24 hours. 40 pangolins died during that time. WFFT reports that their staff and dog rescue groups were “not allowed to assist with the medical or any other care” and it is “unclear where the remaining live animals were taken.”

    Malaysian officials and forest police burn pangolins confiscated at Indonesian airport.

    All four Asian pangolins are listed by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN):

        • Chinese or Formosan pangolin (Manis pentadactyla): ENDANGERED
        • Malayan or Sunda pangolin (Manis javanica): ENDANGERED
        • Indian pangolin (Manis crassicaudata): NEAR THREATENED
        • Palawan pangolin (Manis culionensis): NEAR THREATENED

Despite the sanctions, pangolins are fast approaching extinction. Due to dwindling pangolin populations in Asia, it is believed the illegal take of the species is now shifting to Africa.