Keeping Pangolins off the Menu

If I asked you what do you think is the most illegally traded mammal in the world, what would you reply? Elephant? Tiger? Rhino, even? You’ll be surprised to hear that the answer is the pangolin. Surprised perhaps because you may not even know what one is. And this is part of the pangolin’s problem. As today’s headlines report, they are being eaten to extinction and yet most people couldn’t even begin to describe what a pangolin looks like. This lack of awareness makes keeping them off the menu a real challenge.

Credit: ZSL/APWG

Credit: ZSL/APWG


When I say ‘most people’ don’t know what a pangolin looks like I’m actually referring to people living in the West. In Asia pangolins regularly feature on dinner menus, or on market stalls where their scales are sold as a cure for all manner of illnesses and ailments. Marketed as a luxury item, eating pangolin is considered to be a sign of one’s social standing. But with more than one million pangolins believed to have been snatched from the wild over the past decade, their numbers are plummeting. Today the conservation status of all eight species of pangolin has been upgraded to threatened with extinction on the IUCN Red List.

As you can see from the photo, a pangolin vaguely resembles an artichoke with legs. They are largely nocturnal and live off a diet of ants and termites. Their armoured skin and ability to curl themselves up into a tight ball means they have few natural predators – other than humans. But despite a commercial ban on wild-caught pangolins in Asia, the illegal trade continues to thrive. Conservationists from the IUCN Pangolin Specialist Group, which is hosted by the Zoological Society of London, have today launched a strategy to tackle this problem.

The new worry is that the relentless consumption of Asian pangolin species will reduce their numbers to a point that forces traders to look to their African cousins to meet demand. As ever, raising the required funds is a crucial factor in preventing this prophecy from being fulfilled. But communication – and a cultural shift – is what’s really needed. Like dropping litter and wearing fur, eating pangolin needs to become socially unacceptable. West Dunbartonshire Council ran a bold campaign to tackle dog fouling where they spray-painted dog mess pink to shame offending dog owners and encourage them to ‘Do the Right Thing!’. This might be a world apart from the restaurants plating up pangolins in Asia but the core message to ‘do the right thing’ is the same.

How to create and distribute an equally bold message about pangolins that will resonate with diners is something I’m currently mulling over, and a challenge that I invite you to tackle with me. So please share any epiphanies, light-bulb moments or strokes of genius via the comments section below and we’ll see what our collective creativity can come up with. After all, as ZSL’s Conservation Programmes Director Prof Jonathan Baillie quite rightly states: “In the 21st Century, we should not be eating species to extinction.”

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