In mid-May, a group of 20 pangolin experts, scientists and conservation professionals gathered in Washington, D.C. to plan a way forward for further protecting pangolins—the most-trafficked wild mammal on earth. One of the points they agreed upon was that there is no conservation value in taking pangolins from the wild and bringing them to North American zoos, since they typically die very quickly in captivity. So why did a six U.S. zoos subsequently declare themselves leaders in pangolin conservation because they have acquired approximately 30 pangolins, probably wild-caught, to add to their captive collections?
By purchasing wild-caught animals, these six zoos in the U.S. are contributing to—and potentially further stimulating—the trade in pangolins, which is the leading threat to this highly endangered and unique species, found in Africa and Asia.
Pangolins are being pummeled by the trade in their scales, used in traditional Asian medicine, and in their meat. In the past decade, there have been well over one million pangolins killed to feed this demand. At the end of May, Hong Kong officials reported the seizure of over 7,200 kilograms of pangolin scales, thought to represent roughly 14,000 dead animals. This is just one of numerous reports of massive amounts of pangolin products being seized en route from Africa or Southeast Asia to be consumed in China, Viet Nam, and other demand countries.
But there has been good news too. More than 100 live pangolins were rescued from smugglers in Viet Nam in early May, following a dramatic highway chase. Last summer, nations agreed to provide pangolins with the strongest possible protections against international commercial trade at the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES). The U.S. government is currently considering a petition to list all pangolins species on the U.S. Endangered Species Act, which would help prevent domestic trade in the species. And my colleagues at the Natural Resources Defense Council, the International Fund for Animal Welfare and other organizations are on the ground in Africa and Asia, protecting habitat, stopping trafficking, and reducing demand: among the top recommendations made by the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s Pangolin Specialist Group for conserving this species.
The U.S. zoos claim that their acquisition of pangolins is a conservation success for the species. Pangolin experts do not agree. Because we know that pangolins are nearly impossible to breed in captivity, these animals were likely captured from the wild. Pangolins are not suited for captivity, with mortality rates of over 6 percent per year and most wild individuals dying within 200 days in captivity. Although some pangolins in captivity have survived, they are the exceptions, with mean survival in captivity below 5 years. Over the past 150 years, many zoos have attempted to maintain pangolins, but these individuals typically die within a few years without reproducing due to the poor acceptance of captive diet, stress, and digestive problems.
Additionally, there are extremely high mortality rates involved in wild pangolin capture. Indeed, experts estimate that for each pangolin that survives capture and transport to captivity, six more will die in the process. Accordingly, if the 30 or so pangolins these zoos obtained were taken from the wild—which is the case with at least one of the zoos—nearly 200 died to make it possible.
This group of zoos claims their newly acquired pangolins will enable them to add to the body of scientific knowledge needed to save this species. And while it is true that we are still learning about some of the most basic aspects of pangolin physiology and behavior, these unknowns are already being studied and answered by pangolin rescue, rehabilitation and release facilities in countries that are part of the pangolin’s range. Conservation organizations such as Zimbabwe’s Tikki Hywood Trust and Save Viet Nam’s Wildlife are already conducting research on confiscated and orphaned animals that can be studied in a semi-natural environment, and are then returned to the wild whenever possible.
Some zoos are already supporting efforts to save pangolins. Organizations involved in pangolin rescue, rehabilitation and release are typically under-resourced and overwhelmed with requests for their assistance, so even relatively modest amounts of financial support from North American zoos have gone a long way in Africa and Asia. Additionally, zoos have been behind some of the education and outreach initiatives in consumer nations to help reduce the demand for pangolins and pangolin parts.
There is a role for everyone in saving endangered species, and we have seen that American zoos can be a tremendous asset in conserving pangolins. That said, zoos should not facilitate or support the capture of wild pangolins, nor should they support a trade that subjects a highly imperiled species to the high mortality rates associated with capture, transport, and captivity. As with all things, the first rule in pangolin conservation should be to do no harm.