In May 2011 Indonesian customs officials inspecting a shipment of fish and turtle meat bound for Vietnam came across a gruesome discovery: 5.9 metric tons of pangolin meat and another 790 kilograms of pangolin scales hidden within the cargo.

It was just one of the nearly four dozen illegal pangolin shipments seized in Indonesia, Vietnam, India, China and other countries in 2011. Conservationists estimate that as many as 41,000 to 60,000 pangolins (eight African and Asian armored anteater species from the genus Manis) were illegally killed last year for their meat and for use in traditional Asian medicine.

Pangolins, often referred to as "scaly anteaters," are declining in all of their natural habitats due to rampant poaching. The three Asian pangolin species are protected under Appendix II of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES), but that hasn't stopped the illegal trade in the animals, which the wildlife trade organization TRAFFIC International says has grown to "ridiculous levels." Pangolin meat and fetuses—yes, you read that right—are considered delicacies in China. Meanwhile, their scales—which, like rhino horns, are made of medicinally useless keratin—are hawked in China and Vietnam as "cures" for everything from cancer, weight loss, improved liver function and enhanced lactation for breast-feeding women. Pangolins are also used in African traditional medicines known as "muti." To a lesser extent, pangolin skin is also used for leather and fashion items.

Project Pangolin, a Web site published by Saving Rhinos, LLC, has declared February 18 World Pangolin Day to bring attention to the plight of the scaly anteaters.

Like most wildlife crime, the punishments for killing or smuggling pangolins are low enough to make the risk worthwhile. In Zimbabwe recently three men were found with a live pangolin in the trunk of their car. They intended to use the animal "in superstitious rites to improve their mining business," according to The Zimbabwean. Each man was fined the equivalent of $1.38—still a relatively large amount in the terrible economy of that country, but the conservation group Tikki Hywood Trust, which uses the pangolin as its logo, is currently petitioning the Zimbabwe government to increase fines 10-fold.

A 2009 report from TRAFFIC and the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) found that pangolins were the mammals most frequently seized from smugglers in Asia. TRAFFIC found that laws to protect pangolins "lack bite," a pointed comment echoing the fact that the animals have no teeth.

Meanwhile, the environmental impact of removing these creatures from nature is not yet known, but it could potentially be huge, since each pangolin can eat tens of thousands of insects per year. "Pangolins save us millions of dollars a year in pest destruction," Simon Stuart, chair of the IUCN Species Survival Commission, said in the 2009 report. "These shy creatures provide a vital service and we cannot afford to overlook their ecological role as natural controllers of termites and ants."

The IUCN Red List of Threatened Species currently lists two pangolin species—the Chinese pangolin (Manis pentadactyla) of China and the Sunda pangolin (Manis javanica) of the Philippines—as "Endangered," with all eight species identified as having declining populations.

Photos: Baby pangolin by Ruslan Rugoals via Flickr. Used under Creative Commons license. Pangolin soup © TRAFFIC