A few days ago customs officials in Vietnam raided a cargo ship from Sierra Leone and seized an astonishing 1.4 tons of dried pangolin scales. The grisly discovery came from the bodies of as many as 10,000 dead pangolins, the scaly anteaters of Africa and Asia that are being hunted into extinction for their meat and the supposed medicinal qualities of their scales. Experts estimate that more than one million wild pangolins have been caught, killed and traded in the past decade, making them the most heavily trafficked group of species in the world.

Virtually all of this trade is illegal. The Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) bans most trade in pangolins but smugglers and poachers continue to devastate wild populations. The threat to pangolins has gotten so bad that the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) now considers all eight species threatened with extinction. "In the 21st century we really should not be eating species to extinction," Jonathan Baillie, co-chair of the IUCN–SSC Pangolin Specialist Group, said today in a press release. "There is simply no excuse for allowing this illegal trade to continue."

Until this week the IUCN, which maintains the Red List of Threatened Species, had listed two pangolin species as “endangered,” six as “near threatened” and two as of “least concern.” As of now, two pangolin species—the Chinese pangolin (Manis pentadactyla) and the Sunda pangolin (M. javanica)—are now listed as “critically endangered.” Two more—the Indian pangolin (M. crassicaudata) and the Philippine pangolin (M. culionensis)—are now considered “endangered.” The remaining four, all from Africa, are now listed as “vulnerable” to extinction. More and more pangolins are now being sourced from Africa because so many Asian pangolins have already been caught and consumed.

In addition to the new risk assessment, the pangolin specialist group this week also published a new conservation action plan (pdf) for the eight species. Entitled "Scaling Up Pangolin Conservation," it includes plans for monitoring the trade, measuring wild pangolin populations, learning more about their ecology, breeding the animals in captivity to compensate for the wild losses, figuring out how to rehabilitate rescued animals (they don't do well in captivity) and educating local populations about the species to develop regional support for the animals. The plan also addresses ways to decrease the demand for pangolin meat and scales in China and Vietnam, which it calls "the single most important activity to address the decline in pangolins."

All of this comes at a critical time for these species. As Dan Challender, the other co-chair of the Pangolin Specialist Group, told me last year, "We need to take action and we need to take action now."

Main photo: A ground pangolin (Manis temminckii) photographed in South Africa by David Brossard. Inset: a critically endangered Sunda pangolin (M. javanica) photographed in Cambodia, courtesy of Wildlife Alliance. Both used under Creative Commons license