Chinese demand for Asia's ant-eaters surges
Author: Trirat Puttajanyawong
Thailand has emerged as a hub for smugglers bringing pangolins from Cambodia, Malaysia, and Indonesia and sending them to China, where they end up in cooking pots and traditional medicine shops.
The number of pangolins confiscated by Thai officials has risen from 1,944 in 2001 to 10,763 in the first seven months of 2002, according to a report by the Thai forestry department obtained by Reuters.
Conservationists say if the trade continues at the current rate the animals, whose name derives from a French word describing their ability to curl up into a ball to defend themselves, will disappear from the region's forests.
Found in south and southeast Asia, pangolins have been used for centuries as a medicine and charm by people across the continent.
PRICES SURGE, PANGOLINS IN DANGER
But increasing wealth in China has led to a surge in the hunting and smuggling of pangolins and a sharp increase in the price of the animal and its scales.
A live pangolin costs 200 baht ($4.80) per kilogram locally in Thailand - three times more expensive than boneless chicken breast - but the price would triple when sold to exporters, the forestry deparment report said.
The animals' scales are sold at 500 baht ($12) per kilogram locally, but exporters will pay double that.
"In China, its meat is very popular, while its scales and blood are mixed with herbs. The formula is believed to prolong life and strengthen the sex drive," says Thanit Palasuwan, head of the anti-wildlife poaching unit at the forestry department.
Some Chinese medicine recipes also use pangolin scales to cure lymph node malfunctions, kill pain, or increase milk in breast-feeding mothers, said Suda Loh, a herb-shop owner in Bangkok.
In Nepal, some people consider the animal's meat a delicacy and make its scales into rings as charms against rheumatic fever. They also believe its flesh has aphrodisiacal value and that an extract of its uterus can safeguard against miscarriages.
VETS DISMISS MEDICINAL VALUE
But experts say the scales are made of the same substance as hair and have no medicinal value.
"The scales can neither melt in boiling water nor in acid, and protein from the pangolin meat is no different from pork," said Chisanu Tiyacharoensri, vice president of the Wild Animal Rescue Foundation of Thailand.
The animals are hunted and smuggled throughout Asia.
In April, some 1,200 frozen pangolins hidden in fish containers bound for Vietnam were seized by Malaysian customs officials.
Customs officials in Hong Kong in October seized some 2,700 kg (5,950 pounds) of pangolin scales hidden in 45 bags in a container that was believed to be bound for mainland China. The cargo, from Surabaya in Indonesia, was valued at HK$1.35 million ($173,000).
The smuggling is expected to continue as long as Chinese consumers maintain their demand for exotic food and medicines and laws remain lax.
Pangolins are protected under Thai law but the penalty for possession is relatively light - a maximum jail term of four years and fine of 40,000 baht (almost $1,000).
"Considering the profit they make from each shipment - about a million baht - it is worth a risk for smugglers since most of them were fined 10,000 baht and did not have to go to jail," said Thanit.
"The truck drivers, who are arrested, never say who the animals belong to."
While pangolins are still fairly abundant they could soon disappear if they continue to be hunted at present rates.
"If the popularity continues at the current rate, we won't be able to find them in nature," Chisanu said.