Singapore - Three-year-old Wanita, the scales that cover her body like a suit of armour stained from a recent roll in the mud, ambles around the compound behind the pangolin exhibit at Singapore's Night Safari searching out the ants and termites that are her staple food with her long, sticky tongue.
These scaly anteaters, once common in Africa and Asia including Singapore, are now under threat from what the Night Safari calls, "industrial scale poaching". Despite no scientific evidence of the benefits, the scales are prized in traditional Chinese medicines while the meat is sold as a rare delicacy for the newly rich.
"The pressure from hunting is very high," said Ju Lian Chong, an academic at Universiti Malaysia Terengganu and the country's leading expert on pangolins. She says numbers have dropped sharply since 2007. You could see them, "on the outskirts of town crossing the road at night," she said. "Now, they are getting harder and harder to find."
The global illegal trade in wildlife is now thought to be worth some $20bn a year, attracting criminal networks in search of a business that can make them lots of money without too much risk of being caught. But while the plight of the elephant and rhino dominate the headlines, the destruction of the shy and, largely nocturnal, pangolin has gone relatively unreported. TRAFFIC, which monitors the illegal trade in wildlife, says the pangolin is the most heavily traded mammal in Asia. In a few months, it's likely the International Union for the Conservation of Nature will add two of the four species in the region – the Chinese pangolin and Sunda pangolin – to its list of the world's most critically endangered species.
'Coolest creatures in the bush'
Biologist Dan Challender first discovered the pangolin on a holiday to Africa, where there are another four species, in 2005. Smitten by what he calls "the coolest creatures in the bush," Challender decided to make the animals the focus of his graduate studies, volunteering at a conservation centre in Vietnam. He's now the co-chair of the IUCN SSC Pangolin Specialist Group and his work at Britain's University of Kent focuses on the illegal trade in the anteater.
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"My research suggests that there are very severe pressures on the pangolin and the situation is deteriorating," he told Al Jazeera on the phone from southern England. "High prices are important to people buying what they see as a luxury good so they can show off to their friends. They also make (the pangolin) attractive to people in the jungle who might hunt for them."
Project Pangolin which seeks to highlight the mammal's plight, says some 8,125 pangolins were seized in 13 countries last year, but notes that since only between 10 and 20 percent of illegal trade is ever discovered the actual number of animals lost could have been as high as 81,250.
Last month, 39 Sunda pangolins were discovered hidden in the boot of a car in China, close to the Vietnamese border, after highway officials noticed the vehicle looked rather heavy prompting police to investigate.
A docile, nocturnal creature, the pangolin has little defence from hunters other than its reptilian body armour. When threatened it rolls up in a ball, but it has no teeth and uses its claws only to dig its burrow or tear apart termite mounds to get at the insects inside.
Poachers – usually opportunistic people living in rural areas - simply pick the animal up by the tail and put it in a sack. It's then sold on to middlemen who sell the traffickers. While most pangolin are smuggled live some are killed, their scales and meat packaged separately – the former passed off as some kind of uncooked keropok (a local type of prawn cracker) and the latter as chicken.
While some end up in Vietnam, for most, the final destination is China. The number of pangolins there is thought to have dropped by some 94 percent as a result of hunting, helping fuel the surge in poaching further afield.
Much like ivory or rhino horn, experts say the pangolin's survival is dependent on better law enforcement and curtailing demand. In 2012, a regional operation coordinated by Interpol, led to the arrest of more than 40 people for involvement in the illegal trade of pangolins, which are protected under both domestic laws and the Convention of International Trade in Endangered Species. But, despite that success, there's been no follow up operation.
Pangolins are such docile animals. It's so easy for anyone to pick them up by their tails and not face resistance
"Our law enforcement recommendations around wildlife crime are totally suitable to combat the illegal trade in pangolins," noted Charlotte Davies of the London-based Environmental Investigation Agency in an email to Al Jazeera. "This means a response which (can) target the sophistication of the crime, which starts with governments and agencies recognising the threat and investing the right resources to combat it."
The threat from poaching is compounded by the destruction of the anteater's forest habitat and because the pangolin gives birth to only one or two young a year; the baby riding around on its mother's tail for three months before it heads off on its own. Researchers are now looking to map populations to establish where the animals are strongest, and most at risk.
Captive breeding is even more of a challenge. It took more than a decade and much experimentation with diet before the Singapore Zoo, which got its first pangolin in 1999, was able to announce a successful birth. Wanita was born in January 2011, and is one of five Sunda pangolins resident at the Night Safari.
"Pangolins are such docile animals. It's so easy for anyone to pick them up by their tails and not face resistance," said Razak Jaafar, who works with the zoo's pangolins. "Education is important so that everyone understands the plight they are facing."