Last stand in Asia for shy, defenseless anteater

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JAKARTA, INDONESIA (AP) - As the 20 cardboard boxes bound for China rolled through the X-ray machine at Jakarta’s airport, Indonesian customs officials suspected what was inside didn’t match what was declared. Instead of fresh fish, a closer look revealed the meat and scales of the most illegally trafficked mammal in Asia: the pangolin.

Once widespread, the shy and defenseless anteater is being vacuumed up for sale largely in China, where many believe it can cure an array of ailments and boost sexual prowess. The last stand of the four Asian species has shrunk to Sumatra and Kalimantan in Indonesia, Palawan in the southern Philippines and parts of Malaysia and India.

From fields and forests to Chinese cooking pots and medicine vials, the industrial-scale trade is propelled along similar trafficking routes for tigers, turtles, bears, snakes and other mostly endangered species across Asia, all driven by a seemingly insatiable demand for often dubious medical remedies, tonics and aphrodisiacs.

“We are watching a species just slip away,” says Chris Shepard, who has tracked wildlife trafficking in Asia for two decades. He says a 100-fold increase is needed in efforts to save the pangolin, sometimes described as a walking pine cone.

Eight tons of meat and scales, worth $269,000, were found in the boxes at Jakarta airport and at a warehouse raided the following day. Four people were arrested.

“I am trying hard to win the war,” says Brig. Gen. Raffles Brotestes Panjaitan, Indonesia’s top wildlife police officer, citing the July seizure. But he lists a host of obstacles: poverty, corruption, an inadequate force and weak international cooperation.

Little studied and hardly an iconic species, pangolins are found in Asia and Africa. They are natural pest controllers, gobbling up ants and termites.

Conservationists first took serious notice in the 1990s when massive harvesting in China and its borderlands, driven by skyrocketing prices, was sweeping southwards, decimating the slow-breeding animals in Thailand, Myanmar, Cambodia and Laos. “In many places, hunters tell us they don’t even look for them any more,” Shepherd says.

By the early 2000s, supplies in Thailand were drying up, as evidenced by the development of an unusual barter trade: Thai smugglers would give insurgents in Indonesia’s Aceh province up to five AK-47 rifles in exchange for one pangolin, according to the International Crisis Group, which monitors conflicts globally.

The pangolin trade _ banned in 2002 by CITES, the international convention on endangered species _ resembles a pyramid.

At the base are poor rural hunters, including workers on Indonesia’s vast palm oil plantations. They use dogs or smoke to flush the pangolins out or shake the solitary, nocturnal animals from trees in often protected forests.

“Everything is against them. … They have no teeth. Their only defense is to roll up in a ball that fits perfectly into a bag,” Shepherd says. Under stress, pangolins can develop stomach ulcers and die.

Middlemen set up buying stations in rural areas and deliver the animals through secretive networks to the less than dozen kingpins in Asia suspected of handling the international connections.

Factories in Sumatra butcher the pangolins, slitting their throats, then stripping off and drying the valuable scales.

The smuggling routes almost all end in China, Shepherd says. Other destinations include Vietnam, the top wildlife consuming nation in Southeast Asia, and South Korea.

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