January 2015

A what?

A pangolin.

It's the only mammal in the world that's completely covered in scales.

It looks like an artichoke on legs. Or a cross between a crocodile and a snake. Or a whacky computer game invention.

It's one of ten animals that Sir David Attenborough would put on his personal Ark, and with good reason. It is 80 million years old (homo sapiens is a mere eight). It eats 200,000 ants and termites a day (heaven knows who counts). It has a (sticky) tongue almost as long as its body, and stores stones in its stomach to grind up food.

When threatened, it rolls itself up into an armour-plated ball that protects it from all known predators. Except, unfortunately, humans of the Asiatic variety. They simply pick the balls up and take them away - on such a scale that pangolins have become the world's most trafficked mammal.

Each year around 100,000 are snatched from the wild and shipped to China and Vietnam, where their meat is considered a delicacy, their scales allegedly cure anything from acne to cancer, and they fetch several hundred dollars each. The demand has soared as those countries have boomed economically. Pangolins are being traded on an “epic scale”, the International Union for the Conservation of Nature says. They're in “precipitous decline”. They have been “extirpated from vast areas” of South-East Asia and are increasingly being plundered from Africa. All eight varieties of pangolin now feature on the IUCN's 'Red List' of animals threatened with extinction, and two are “critically endangered”.

As Prince William noted recently: “The humble pangolin runs the risk of becoming extinct before most of us have even heard of it,”.

It was time, I decided, to check them out.

I'd have gone to a zoo, except that pangolins seldom survive in captivity and not a single British zoo possesses any (Leipzig is the only zoo in Europe, and one of only six in the world, that does). That - along with the fact that pangolins are shy and nocturnal, and were ignored by Rudyard Kipling and Walt Disney, and lack the celebrity status of elephants, rhinos and tigers - helps explain why so few westerners even realise they exist.

So I went to Vietnam, though the Vietnamese government refused me a journalist's visa when I explained why I wanted to go. I took an overnight flight to Bangkok, a dawn connection to Hanoi and - having sneaked in as a tourist – a taxi down to the Cuc Phuong national park where a plucky little NGO called Save Vietnam's Wildlife runs a pangolin rescue and rehabilitation centre.

I never reached the park that day. Nguyen Van Thai, the determined young man who runs SVW, called as my taxi was still battling Hanoi's million motor scooters. The authorities had confiscated four pangolins from traffickers on the Chinese border, he said. I could go and fetch them with him. 250 miles. Eight more hours of travelling. Wonderful, I replied, as I fought an overwhelming urge to sleep.

All day we drove north through the towns and cities of this teeming nation, past spiky little mountains and lush green paddy fields, stopping only for a meal of tripe and fermented cabbage with rice in a roadside caff (I opted for an omelette).

We reached the city of Ha Giang long after dark. There officials from the Forest Protection Department (FDP) pulled a flimsy wooden box from a garage. Thai prised it open with a machete, releasing a powerful stench of cooped-up animal and excrement. Inside were three plastic sacks and one net bag, each containing a brownish-black ball roughly the size and weight of an ice curling stone.

He placed the balls on the ground. Gradually, and with great caution, one began to uncurl, revealing a blackcurrant eye, a long pointed snout and a body with a soft pink underbelly that tapered into an even longer tail. The pangolin tried repeatedly to stand up, but was so weak it kept toppling over. By the morning, to Thai's distress, it was dead.

Thai explained that two motorcyclists had been caught the previous week as they crossed into China along a forest track at dawn. The pangolins were in their backpacks. He had read of the incident in a newspaper, but it had taken him five days to secure the FDP's permission to take the animals away. The rangers had evidently not thought to remove them from their sacks during that time, or to give them food and water. “They don't care very much about wildlife. They're only interested in saving trees,” he explained.

The next day, as we returned to Cuc Phuong with the three surviving animals in the boot, Thai expanded on the pangolin's plight.

As a boy growing up near the national park in the late 1980s he used to see them all the time, he said, but none had been spotted in its 22,000 hectares since 2006. After they had been hunted almost to extinction throughout northern Vietnam and southern China, they began to be imported in industrial quantities from Malaysia, Indonesia and other parts of South-East Asia, though international trade in pangolins was effectively banned in 2000. Now, in an alarming sign that South-East Asia's pangolins are running out, their scales are starting to arrive in large shipments from Africa.

The pangolins are caught in their forest lairs with nets or snares or dogs, Thai continued. They are smuggled into Vietnam by land from Laos, or by ship to Haiphong port - dead and alive, fresh and frozen, gutted, skinned, disguised as fish or snakes and in loads weighing as much as 20 tonnes. They are then spirited in lorries, trains, buses, taxis and even ambulances to Hanoi or Ho Chi Minh City, or on to China where they command even higher prices than in Vietnam. Before selling them, the traffickers frequently pump their stomachs full of gravel or rice starch, or inject water between their scales and flesh, to increase their weight and hence their value.

Sometimes traffickers are caught, Thai said, but seldom because of assiduous policing. They are mostly caught because rivals have snitched on them, or an informant has betrayed them for money. Some traffickers escape punishment by bribing the police. Others are fined according to the weight of the haul. But they are seldom if ever imprisoned.

Moreover a legal loophole allows the police to sell some confiscated pangolins on the open market and to keep the proceeds – effectively signalling to the general public that trading pangolins is acceptable. The police have even been known to sell pangolins back to the very traffickers they seized them from. “It's really terrible,” Thai said.

When we eventually reached Cuc Phuong that second night Thai showed me SVW's “pangolarium” where ten pangolins are kept in large wire-mesh cages in a tranquil wooded compound on the edge of the national park until they can be safely restored to the wild.

“I love pangolins. They're very special,” Thai said, and anyone who has come into contact with them agrees. Jonathan Baillie, head of conservation programmes at the Zoological Society of London, describes them as “amazing, wonderful creatures”. Attenborough calls them “one of the most endearing animals I've ever met”, and it is not hard to see why they inspire such affection.

They are solitary animals, but don't mind being picked up. They are strong, but gentle and placid and have no teeth. They carry their young on their tails and curl round them to protect them. They use their prehensile tails to swing from branches and stretch out horizontally to reach ant nests. They walk with a slightly comic rolling gait. They have poor sight, but a very good sense of smell and emit little sneezing noises when they sense food. They are intelligent, and have distinct personalities. Some are friendly, others timid. Some are lazy, others active. Some are determined escapologists.

A particularly outgoing pangolin called Lucky is everyone's favourite. She earned her name when the FDP offered the rescue centre five pangolins after discovering 72 on a truck. Thai went to collect them, but found one of the five had died. “I said 'Can I change it for a live one?' and they said 'Yes, but you have to choose a small one' as they wanted to sell the others. So I picked up Lucky and the rest got eaten.”

Another remarkable thing about pangolins is how little is known about them. Dan Challender, who co-chairs the IUCN's pangolin specialist group with Baillie, calls them “the forgotten species”. Some live in trees, others in burrows, but nobody is certain whether they stay in one place, how they mate, how long they take to gestate, how long they live or exactly what they eat. Thai's rescue centre has settled on a diet of ants, silkworm larvae and soyabean. It manages to keep more of its pangolins alive than most other places, though many arrive so weak and traumatised by their abductions that they die within a day or two.

Nor does anyone know how many pangolins are left, though a million are thought to have have been killed in the past decade. Of the four types found in Asia the Chinese and Sunda pangolins are deemed to be 'critically endangered', and the Indian and Philippine pangolins 'endangered'. The four African species are all rated as 'vulnerable', but they are increasingly being targeted as Asia's pangolin populations shrivel. In July, for example, Vietnamese customs officials seized 1.4 tonnes of pangolin scales, the product of roughly 3,000 animals, from a cargo ship arriving from Sierra Leone.

“The African markets are now being ignited,” Baillie told me. “In the past you didn't see any traffic from Africa, and you wouldn't go all that way to ship them back if you had a sufficient supply of your own.”

Vietnam has a poor conservation record. Its last Javan Rhino was poached in the Cat Tien national park in 2010. The regime now claims to be stepping up its efforts to combat the trade in pangolins, and has promised to upgrade them to the highest level of protection. But Thai and I saw little sign of that when we visited Hanoi at the end of my trip. Buying – or pretending to buy - pangolin products in the Vietnamese capital proved as easy as the practice was abhorrent.

In the space of two hours we visited four traditional medicine shops in the bustling Old Quarter and found pangolin scales on sale in three of them.

The first, in Thuoc Bac Street, had a packet of powdered scales labelled 'Te-Te' (pangolin) on display at its front counter, and the middle-aged woman who ran it produced a sweet jar full of untreated scales from the back of the shop when we asked. The scales cured cancer, poor circulation and arthritis, she assured us before demanding $1,100 a kilo. I asked why they were so expensive. “Because they're rare and illegal,” she replied without a trace of shame.

In the second shop, on Hang Vai Street, the manageress moved aside a plastic container full of some innocuous herb to reveal one plastic bag of untreated scales, and another of fried scales. She wanted $1,500 a kilo, but lowered the price to $1,250. She claimed pangolin scales cured cancer and improved a mother's lactation, and she even wrote down the Vietnamese word for 'pangolin' on her business card so I could check for myself on-line.

In the fourth shop, on Lan Ong Street, the assistant produced a bag full of untreated scales from a small drawer at the back of her premises. Asked how to prepare them, she advised microwaving them, then putting them in a blender, and serving the resulting powder in a soup. She wanted only $750 a kilo.

I sensed Thai's disgust, but he said that reporting the shops to the authorities was pointless because they would do nothing. “They really don't care once the animals are dead,” he complained. Indeed the official handbook of Vietnamese traditional medicine still openly commends pangolin scales as a remedy for “stimulating energy and blood circulation, destroying ulcers and promoting milk secretion in the human body”, and for treating “ulcerated scrofula” and “acnes”. It even gives detailed recipes for treating each ailment. It is all nonsense, of course. Pangolin scales are made of keratin, like human hair and finger nails, and have no medicinal value whatsoever.

To find restaurants that served pangolin meat we drove across the broad Red River to Hanoi's Long Bien district and pretended to be looking for somewhere to entertain some friends that night.

The up-market Tran Ban restaurant offers diners 'the traditional taste of the countryside'. Its menu lists all sorts of wild meats – porcupine, civet, boar, swan, turtle, cobra, rattlesnake and, of course, pangolin. There is even a picture of one. A keen young waiter said a live pangolin would cost $250 a kilo and take a couple of days to acquire. Its throat would be slit at our table and its blood added to our wine. The meat could be stir fried, steamed or cooked with spices.

The equally smart Huong Que restaurant promised us all that and more. Its ornate reception area was decorated with outsized jars of rice wine in which various animals were slowly pickling – king cobras, geckos, lizards. The menu offered us pangolin in various forms - steamed, grilled, 'half-done browned in fat', 'carefully cooked with Chinese medicinal herbs', 'stir-fried puddings', 'simmer bone porridge' or 'a whole one was steamed' (sic).

The beaming manager poured us green tea. He said he would need a few hours notice to procure a pangolin, but could get one for that night. It would cost $250 a kilo. He recommended steaming it, with the tongue chopped into pieces for a soup. He promised that we could watched its throat being slit, and claimed the blood was a powerful aphrodisiac. He then produced from a back room a large jar of rice wine with a small, dead pangolin floating in it – a truly grotesque sight. He offered us that as well for another $200.

Thai was seething. Selling pangolins was simply not considered as a serious offence in Vietnam, he protested. “The authorities all know of places like this but they don't want to do anything about them.”

The problem was not the poor and uneducated, he continued, but the wealthy elite – the senior government officials and wealthy businessmen who order pangolin to celebrate a deal or flaunt their status. “Ninety million Vietnamese can no longer see pangolins in their own country because a few rich officials and businessmen want to eat them. I think that's disgusting.”

Baillie agrees: “In the 21st century we really should not be eating species to extinction – there is simply no excuse for allowing this illegal trade to continue.” So does Chris Shepherd, deputy director for South-East Asia of the wildlife watchdog Traffic. “Sadly most law enforcement agencies don't view pangolins as a high priority,” he says, adding: “Basically we either increase enforcement or kiss pangolins goodbye.”

Thai does his best to raise awareness of the pangolin's plight in Vietnam, but with an annual budget of just $35,000 raised entirely from foreign donors SVW can only do so much. Outside pressure is needed, and that is belatedly beginning to build. In 2013 the first global conference on pangolin conservation was held in Singapore. Last year (2014) the IUCN's newly-formed pangolin specialist group published a detailed action plan – 'Scaling Up Pangolin Conservation'. Baillie is now trying persuade children's writers and artists to popularise the animal, and in November Prince William brought his star power to bear by launching a new version of the Angry Birds game featuring pangolins.

Having now seen pangolins for myself, I am a convert to the cause. They are a creature like no other, one of nature's curiosities, and the world would be poorer without them. But I must make a confession. I have eaten pangolin myself. I did so in the company of three French helicopter pilots whom I met in the Gabonese town of Oyem in 2013. I do not remember the meat tasting very special, and my only defence is that I was unaware at the time of the threat to pangolins.

I know better now.