- Associated Press - Sunday, May 21, 2017

PITTSBURGH (AP) - At an extravagant banquet in China’s Guangxi region, privileged local government officials and businessmen feasted on meat from the most illegally trafficked mammal on Earth.

Looking sort of like a scaly anteater, the pangolin is more closely related to dogs, cats and bears and grows to about the size of a fat raccoon. Indigenous to Central Africa and South Asia, it eats primarily ants and termites gathered with a tongue that extends to the full length of the rest of its body.

When threatened, the pangolin protects its exposed belly by rolling itself into a scaly sphere that looks like a prehistoric bowling ball. But after some 80 million years on the planet, the pangolin may have finally met an obstacle it cannot overcome.

“It tasted great,” a Hong Kong businessman who attended the Guangxi trade banquet said in an internet post that went viral. “… This is the first time I have eaten it. I have fell (sic) deeply in love with the taste of wildlife.”

China banned the trade in pangolins about 12 years ago, and international organizations are getting serious about pangolin protection.

“But much more needs to be done,” said Justin Miller of the Florida-based nonprofit group Pangolin Conservation, during a visit this week to the Pittsburgh Zoo and PPG Aquarium. Friday, on national Endangered Species Day, the zoo is drawing attention to the three wild-born pangolins it holds in captivity. Used for research, they are not expected to be curated for public viewing for two years.

“Part of the problem in protecting pangolins is that we don’t know much about them. There really hasn’t been much scientific research,” said Miller.

The Pittsburgh zoo is part of a consortium of six American zoos collaborating on research of the animal.

“We’re working with Duquesne University to do the first DNA analysis of the pangolin,” said Ken Kaemmerer, the zoo’s mammal curator. “Are pangolins from separate areas related to each other? When illegal shipments are seized, can the scales be traced back to the village where they originated? We’re really just at the beginning of understanding them.”

The animal’s low public profile is another problem.

“They’re not in the public eye like the lion or rhinoceros, and the effort among several groups in addition to mine to build support for funding programs is starting late,” Miller said. “Of the eight remaining species of pangolins, four are threatened, two are endangered and two are critically endangered.”

People living in the pangolin’s shrinking range kill it for food and collect its scales, which they believe have medicinal properties that stimulate lactation and improve circulation.

Unprecedented prosperity in Southeast Asia during the past decade has created a growing culture of nouveau riche professionals who are often criticized in state media for ostentatious displays of black-market novelties including the meat and bones of exotic and endangered animals. As the number of Southeast Asian multimillionaires has risen, the pangolin population has dropped - in some species to near extinction.

Across Asia, the average price for a skinned pangolin is $1,000, according to Havocscope, a website that posts data and threat analyses about global black market trends. Butchered, a pound of pangolin meat sells for $661 and scales go for about $6,612 a pound.

“Pangolin meat is … consumed as a luxury food and to convey social status,” said Rachel Kramer, a senior animal trafficking officer with the World Wildlife Fund, based in Switzerland and the United States. “But with the increasing globalization of trade and scaled buying power in urban markets, trafficking has reached alarming levels.”

Conservationists were startled to notice a growing quantity of pangolin parts taken in global seizures.

“In one case, Hong Kong customs intercepted an illegal shipment of 2.6 tons of scales that originated in West Africa, transiting via Malaysia,” said Ms. Kramer.

Chinese state media reported that in December, 3.1 tons of pangolin scales were seized with a street value of $2 million.

Authorities from the United Kingdom and Chinese wildlife enforcement officials estimate that 10,000 pangolins are smuggled into China from Southeast Asia each year.

“Those are just the ones that got caught,” said Miller. “We think about 80 percent of the illegal trade in pangolins is getting through.”

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Online:

http://bit.ly/2qHMA0y

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Information from: Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, http://www.post-gazette.com

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