A rapidly expanding demand for pangolins and and their products threatens to have the scaly mammals hunted to extinction in central Africa, according to the findings of a study published in the Conservation Letters journal.

Pangolins, a group of African and Asian mammals, are considered “the most heavily trafficked wild mammal in the world,” and are hunted and traded for food and traditional medicines. They are also used in rituals, art, and magic among communities across Africa and Asia, the study points out.

“Seizures of pangolins and their derivatives (e.g., scales and skins) from Africa destined for Asia are increasing with over 53 tons seized in 2013, and more than 1 million pangolins trafficked globally since 2000 as estimated from illegal trade data,” the study noted. “These estimates likely represent a fraction of all pangolins traded, and an even smaller proportion of the number of pangolins hunted.”

According to the study, an estimated 2.71 million pangolins are killed every year in six central African countries -- Cameroon, Central African Republic, Equatorial Guinea, Gabon, Democratic Republic of the Congo and the Republic of Congo -- an increase of about 145 percent since 2000.

African pangolin populations were already assumed to be declining, because of habitat degradation and loss, hunting, and increasing demand from international markets. However, little is known about population sizes, reproductive potential, and African pangolin trade. Mounting evidence suggests that as the availability of Asian pangolins declines and international trade flows increase, traders are increasingly supplying the currently more abundant and less expensive African pangolins to meet Asian demand.

African species are the white-bellied, black-bellied, giant ground and and Temminck’s ground pangolin. They are currently classified as “Vulnerable” by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) and international trade was recently banned under the the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES).

In Asia, pangolin populations in have declined by an estimated 90 per cent and all four Asian pangolin species are listed as “Critically Endangered” or “Endangered” on IUCN’s Red List of Threatened Species due to growing demand for meat and low reproductive rates.

The study is available here: http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/conl.12389/full

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