Dan Challender remembers the first time he saw someone eat a pangolin. As part of his research into the consumer demand and illegal trade of the small mammals—often referred to as scaly anteaters—he found himself in a restaurant in Ho Chi Minh City in 2012. To help his research Challender made friends with the restaurant owners, who had been known to serve pangolin, but he didn't expect to be there when the customer arrived and placed an order. "This guy ordered a pangolin just because he could afford it," Challender says, noting the man paid between $600 and $700 for the animal. "A friend had recommended it to him."

The restaurant owners brought a pangolin out in a bag and tipped the live animal onto the customer's table, where it sat in the defensive ball that both protects and dooms them. "They tried very hard to uncurl it, because they're very strong animals. It quickly dawned on me that this creature had had it and there was very little I could do to intervene." A few minutes later the animal was killed, prepared and eaten.

It was just one of many.

Soaring trade

No one knows exactly how many pangolins are sold each year, but it probably numbers in the tens of thousands. Almost all of this trade is illegal under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES), which forbids all trade in the four Asian species and strictly limits trade of the four African species. Unfortunately, international and domestic protections have done little to stem the tide.

It's not all that hard to poach a pangolin from the wild. Like armadillos the small, scaly mammals roll up into tight, little armored balls whenever they are threatened. This defensive adaptation works well against anything with teeth and claws, but against human hands it is pretty much useless. When a poacher finds a pangolin in a tree or smokes it out of a burrow, all he needs to do is wait for the animal to roll up so he can grab it and stuff it in a sack.

After that pangolins become easy profit. From their various habitats in Africa and Asia the animals—the only members of the order Pholidota—are illegally shipped off to China and Vietnam, where their meat is considered a delicacy and their scales are valued for use in traditional medicine. (Like rhino horns, the scales are made of keratin and are medicinally useless.)

As poaching makes all eight species increasingly rare, the price for pangolin meat and scales has soared. Last month customs officials in India seized 85 kilograms of pangolin scales—representing about 300 animals—valued at more than $84,000. Similar large seizures of pangolin scales, meat or even live animals seem to take place every few weeks.

Amidst increasing levels of trade, the new Pangolin Specialist Group of the International Union for the Conservation of Nature's (IUCN) Species Survival Commission held its first meeting last month in Singapore to discuss how to protect these little-studied creatures. "The event was a landmark for pangolin conservation," says Challender, the group's co-chair and a PhD candidate studying the pangolin trade at the University of Kent in England. "This was the first time that pangolin researchers, conservationists, geneticists, social scientists and zoologists have come together to map out a path forward for conserving pangolins for the next decade."

That next decade could be critical for pangolins. Research presented at the meeting concludes that all eight pangolin species are now in decline due to illegal trade, that the threat for all species has escalated. Some species—especially the Chinese pangolin (Manis pentadactyla) and Malaysia's Sunda pangolin (M. javanica)—could soon face extinction, according to the experts. "The overarching narrative for pangolin trade is that the Chinese population of pangolins has suffered dramatic declines over the last 20 years at least," Challender says. "And as a result of that, it is suggested that the trade has then shifted southward into what was formerly called Indochina—Laos, Vietnam, Myanmar, down through Thailand and peninsular Malaysia. A lot of the trade is now sourced from Indonesia and Malaysia. But at the same time an even more contemporary trend is that source has shifted west. There's now trade coming from India, Nepal and Pakistan." Meanwhile the increased Chinese presence in Africa has put pressure on the pangolin species there.

Presentations at the meeting discussed the function of the illegal trade as well as pangolin ecology, techniques for assessing populations in the wild, husbandry (the species are very difficult to keep in captivity due to their specialized insect diets) and ways to reduce consumer demand. All of the information will now be compiled into a conservation action plan, which Challender says is due in the next few months.

Time for action

The action plan will take a "multifaceted approach," he says. "The price of pangolins is rising in major markets, and that can be attributable to scarcity. One of the things we want to do is reduce demand for pangolins, both for their meat and for their scales." They hope to do that by raising awareness and trying to find ways to make pangolins more charismatic—not necessarily an easy task for creatures that look like a cross between a pine cone and an artichoke, but Challender thinks it can be done. "They exist in this space for me where, depending on your outlook they're either endearing, cute and sweet creatures or they're not. They don't have big eyes, they're not cuddly."

The action plan will also try to identify the current habitat strongholds for the eight species so that on-the-ground protection measures can be put in place. "We need to verify those strongholds and then establish protected areas and improve enforcement," Challender says. The group also hopes to develop new methods to accurately count pangolin populations, a challenging task because the animals are both solitary and nocturnal.

Challender notes that the action plan will need to be followed by a lot of actual action. "We need to raise awareness in the consumer states about the conservation predicament of the species and the dynamics of what's happening. We also need to raise money as a specialist group for our research. We need to learn more about the consumption in east Asian markets. We need to learn more about pangolin ecology, more about their biology and more about their population viability and strongholds." The specialist group has put out a call for volunteers, information and donations to help make all of that possible.

For now, though, Challender says time is running out for some pangolin species. "From the existing evidence that we have, all pangolin species appear to be in decline, some more steeply than others—some are more close to extinction than others. We need to take action and we need to take action now."

Photos (used under Creative Commons license unless noted): Long-tailed pangolin by Burt Wursten via Flickr. Pangolins in a cage in Myanmar by Dan Bennett via Flickr. Indian pangolin by Madhusudan Katti via Flickr. Pangolin soup © TRAFFIC. A tree pangolin for sale along the side of the road in the Central African Republic by John Friel via Flickr