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Scientist Dan Challender Stands Up for Pangolins, World’s Most Trafficked Wild Mammals

Scientist Dan Challender
Dan Challender.

Scientist Dan Challender’s scholarly research has taken him to luxurious restaurants in Vietnam where pangolin appeared on the menu for hundreds of dollars.

Challender, a University of Oxford research fellow, is devoting his career to studying pangolins, which are sometimes known as scaly anteaters. The threatened animals are among the most trafficked mammals in Asia and increasingly, Africa, according to the World Wildlife Foundation. And pangolins, according to AAAS Member Challender, are shy, gentle creatures who are virtually defenseless against human hunters.

“I was drawn to them because they are other-worldly, and seemingly like nothing else in the animal kingdom,” Challender says, adding that he was interested in focusing on a mammal that was not that well understood. “Pangolins stood out for me, and I became hooked.”

The mammals eat ants, larvae and termites and live in trees or underground burrows, across Asia and in west, central and sub-Saharan Africa. Their scales protect them from predators and whenever they’re attacked, they curl up into a ball and use their scales to defend themselves. They’re the only mammals covered in scales from head to toe. And, even though they do not have teeth, they help regulate social insect populations, eating nearly 6 million insects every month, according to the Anadolu Agency.  

Pangolin’s scales are used in traditional African and Asian medicine, and are believed to cure multiple diseases, including cancer, heart disease, psoriasis. They’re believed to help women produce milk.

Meanwhile, pangolin meat is considered a delicacy in Vietnam and China. And, people in parts of central and west Africa have also consumed pangolin meat as a local protein source, adding to their depleted numbers. The creature weighs between 4.4 and 84 pounds (two and 38 kilograms).

Taken together, pangolin’s scales and meat make them prime targets for illegal wildlife trade, even though commercial international trade in wild-caught pangolins is prohibited. A 2018 study revealed that between 400,000 and 2.7 million pangolins are consumed annually in six Central African countries. And according to an estimate used by the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) that covers international trade, nearly 1 million pangolins were illegally traded since 2000.

For ethical reasons, Challender can’t release the name of the Ho Chi Minh City hotspot he visited. But he can say diners paid $700 for 4.4 pounds of pangolin in 2012 and it was easily the most expensive meat on the menu. And, Challender couldn’t help but notice this particular, well-known restaurant was known for serving affluent customers and was adorned with high-end whiskey brands.

When people order pangolin, they’re reinforcing their social status to friends and business colleagues. Diners sitting near Challender ordered pangolin and it was killed there on the spot. This way it’s fresh and there’s no doubt it’s pangolin meat, not a cheap knock off that’s being passed off as pangolin.

As people gathered around to watch the pangolin meet its violent end, Challender remembers sitting stoically, knowing he could not intervene, because he had to interview the chef and servers as part of his research.

“Pretty hard to take for sure, but I had no choice,” he says.

Now with the COVID-19 pandemic, Challender’s fieldwork is on hold. In an ideal world, he’d be traveling around the globe to study pangolin populations and observe pangolin scales being seized while helping to develop conversion parameters (number of different pangolin species in given seizures) that don’t exist at the moment. In the pandemic, Challender has instead turned his attention to researching how pangolins are traded online, as their trafficking has not slowed down in the pandemic.

He’s working with colleagues in China and Vietnam to better understand how much illegal trade happens online, what products are traded and to where. This should help inform measures that online platforms can take to reduce online illegal trade in pangolin products.

If we can conserve them, he says, we’ll be protecting a special part of the tree of life. And at Oxford, Challender is working on two initiatives: one that looks at consumer demand for pangolin parts, mostly in China and Vietnam, to understand in-depth consumer demand for pangolins in those countries. That understanding could then be used to help inform behavior change activities that could reduce demand for pangolins, hopefully alleviating exploitative pressure on wild populations.  

Challender remains opposed to a blanket ban on wildlife trading during the pandemic. Billions of people depend on the trade for food, income, shelter, medicine and more, so implementing a blanket ban in his view is “not a sensible solution.” He fears it could lead to trade moving underground and in less sanitary conditions, possibly create future outbreaks of disease or impact market dynamics with higher prices.

“Pangolin conservationists are interested in conserving the species, but should be doing so in a way that’s sensitive to the needs of local people who live close to pangolins,” he says.

Challender’s work isn’t limited to research and policy. He recently was the lead editor on “Pangolins, Science, Society and Conservation,” a 2020 publication. The book covers everything from pangolin evolution to their role in ecosystems. And there’s a chapter devoted to each of the eight pangolin species as well as their cultural significance locally and around the world.

What Challender wants people to know most about pangolins is there’s no evidence to suggest pangolins were an intermediate host for COVID-19 between bats and humans, despite speculation to the contrary. His concern is pangolins will suffer greater persecution if they’re associated with the virus.

“We don’t want that to happen to pangolins,” he says. “Pangolins will generally keep to themselves.”