Operation Pangolin: New Initiative Launched to Save World’s Most Trafficked Wild Mammal

All eight species of pangolin are in severe decline due to illegal trade.

Indian Pangolin or Anteater (Manis crassicaudata) one of the most traffic wildlife species
Indian pangolin (Manis crassicaudata). Vicky_Chauhan / Getty Images

Pity the pangolin. Looking like an anteater straight out of Game of Thrones, these scaly-skinned mammals are hunted for meat and prized for their scales, which are used in traditional Chinese practices. Even though the pangolin's scales, like rhino horn, have no proven medicinal value.

Throughout history, pangolins have been hunted sustainably and used for food and medical purposes. But in the last few decades, overexploitation has skyrocketed, and all eight species are threatened. Pangolins are found in Asia and Africa, and animals from both continents are being poached for international wildlife trafficking. They are considered the most highly trafficked of all wild mammals.

How bad is it? "Enough pangolin scales have been seized in the past decade to account for at least 1 million pangolins ... at least 250,000 are estimated to be taken from African and Asian forests every year for consumers in China, Vietnam, and even western Europe and the United States," explains the University of Oxford in a press statement announcing the launch of Operation Pangolin. The new initiative was created by researchers and conservationists to save the creatures from extinction.

“In the last decade pangolin populations in Central Africa have been under increasing pressure from offtake for local use and international trafficking of their scales,” said Dr. Dan Challender, an interdisciplinary Conservation Scientist based in the University of Oxford's Department of Biology and the Oxford Martin School. “This project has the potential to transform pangolin conservation, first in key locations in Central Africa, and then extending into parts of Asia. By taking an interdisciplinary approach and using novel technology and artificial intelligence methods, the project will give pangolin populations in these regions the best chance of survival.”

Launched in Cameroon and Gabon, much in thanks to core-funding support from the Paul G. Allen Family Foundation, the program plans to expand into Nigeria soon.

101 Smuggled Pangolins Were Secured At The Riau Natural Resources Conservation Agency.
One of 101 smuggled pangolins at the Riau Natural Resources Conservation Agency. Arief Budi Kusuma / EyeEm / Getty Images

Among the least studied land animals in the world, little is known about the animals, and even less is known about the criminal economy "where trafficked pangolins and the illegal sale of their scales and meat often go undetected." As explained by the University of Oxford:

Operation Pangolin will generate much-needed data to inform conservation strategies in Central Africa, with global implications for the illicit wildlife trade. The team will then help implement the identified strategies, including wildlife crime prevention, with the hope of expanding their efforts into Asia, the only other continent with native pangolin populations.

The project's framework is comprised of four pillars:

  • Monitoring of pangolin populations, including developing and deploying new technologies to do so.
  • Understanding the social-ecological systems in which pangolins are harvested, used, and traded in key areas in Central Africa to inform locally-led sustainable conservation solutions.
  • Using insights from conservation criminology to prevent the illegal harvesting and trafficking of pangolins.
  • Using artificial intelligence and machine learning approaches to unite diverse data streams to prevent wildlife crime involving pangolins, including through predictive approaches.

The collaborative team includes researchers from different institutions and with expertise in different fields. The team will work with local conservation stakeholders, including indigenous peoples, local communities, and government agencies, to initiate pangolin monitoring programs, implement conservation interventions, and develop predictive tools for addressing wildlife crime.

“Without urgent conservation action at a global scale, all eight species of pangolins face extinction,” said Matthew H. Shirley from Florida International University, project lead for Operation Pangolin. “Operation Pangolin is a chance to alter the conservation landscape for pangolins and other wildlife threatened by illicit human behavior.”

Uniquesafarieye / Getty Images

“Accurate, actionable data is the foundation of effective conservation efforts,” said Gabe Miller, director of technology on behalf of the Paul G. Allen Family Foundation. “Operation Pangolin will provide a blueprint for how conservationists can turn data into solutions that address important issues like wildlife trafficking and the biodiversity crisis head-on.”

For these adorably odd, prehistoric-looking wonders—and trafficked animals everywhere—it can't come soon enough.

To learn more, visit the website for Operation Pangolin.