Despite efforts of local conservationists, demand from China for scales, meat and traditional medicine has made the endangered pangolin the world's most trafficked animal.
On a Sunday evening last month, Masood Akhter, a 45-year-old government worker, was out with his family in Wah, a garrison city on the Potohar Plateau in Pakistan's Punjab province northwest of the capital, Islamabad.
While walking through the city, he spotted an odd looking creature with scales covering its body. People were gathering around it, and no one knew what it was. Some people thought it looked like a dinosaur. "I was surprised to see a weird-looking, 3-foot-long creature for the first time in my life," Akhter said.
However, the creature wasn't a monster or a dinosaur, but rather a pangolin. And although most people have never heard of this armadillolike mammal, the Indian pangolin is currently the world's most-trafficked animal, according to the World Wildlife Fund (WWF). The pangolins are hunted for their scales and meat, and China is the largest market. Much of the demand is met by poachers in Pakistan.
Conservationist groups in Pakistan are now campaigning to control the illegal trade of endangered Indian pangolins. In 2017, WWF-Pakistan started a project called "Saving the Pangolins of Pakistan" in provinces where the pangolin population has been hit the most. According to the WWF, the population of the Indian pangolin decreased by 80% between 2013 and 2018.
Muhammad Waseem, a WWF conservationist, said that pangolin dealers are found in major cities and that many locals poach pangolins for cash payments. A man from a small village told DW that he once witnessed people killing a pangolin, and said he wished that he had known that its scales were so valuable. "If I was aware of its high price on the market, I definitely would have sold the animal parts, instead of letting it waste and decay."
Illegal poaching in Pakistan is the primary driver of the illegal pangolin trade, with the animal parts reaching China via middlemen operating in the southern port of Karachi.
Chinese demand for meat and medicine
Pangolin scales are used in traditional Chinese medicine, and its meat is also considered to be a delicacy. As the trade operates in a black market, there are no figures available on how many tons of pangolin scales are smuggled to China each year.
Chinese conservationists say that the pangolin is almost extinct in China, and that fuels demand for illegal imports.
The international trade in the four species of Asian pangolins has been banned since 2000, and this was expanded in 2017 to all eight species worldwide.
According to the China Biodiversity Conservation and Green Development Foundation (CBCGDF), there are more than 200 pharmaceutical firms in China manufacturing some 60 brands of traditional medicines by using pangolin scales.
Every year, Chinese officials authorize pharmaceutical firms to use 29 tons of pangolin scales, which amounts to roughly 73,000 individual pangolins.
The CBCGDF has sent teams to southern China's provinces to investigate black market trade and were surprised to see that many restaurants were serving pangolin meat.
In 2017, Chinese customs officials seized a record 13 tons of illegally imported pangolin scales. Last year, Hong Kong officials confiscated 7.8 tons of pangolin scales in a single shipment heading to China.
Fighting poaching at its source
As the Indian pangolin in Pakistan is on the verge of extinction, conservationist groups, documentary filmmakers, zoologists and citizens are running campaigns to educate people to save pangolins in Pakistan.
"Poachers in Pakistan are mercilessly killing pangolins after the influx of Chinese investors into Pakistan as part of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) project," Riaz Hussian, a pangolin conservationist in Pakistan, told DW.
Over the past two years, the WWF has set up six pangolin protection zones watched over by security guards and wildlife observers to prevent poaching.
Muhmmad Ali Ijaz, a documentary filmmaker, produced a 15-minute-long educational film to show in schools and community centers to raise awareness about the pangolin.
"There is a lot of disinformation regarding pangolins among the public. People think they are dangerous, and they often beat and kill the animals," Ijaz told DW, adding that his film was able to change some people's minds.
Although Pakistan has listed the pangolin as a protected animal under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species, conservationists say that there is a lack of coordination among various agencies when it comes to stopping poachers.
"Protecting pangolins requires the joint efforts of all countries in the world. The demonstration effect is very important," Linda Wong, a director at the CBCGD, told DW. "We advocate that seized pangolin scales should be destroyed in order to send a clear signal to the world."