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For years, we've heard of the slaughter of big-game animals like rhinos and elephants. The recent killing of a protected lion in Zimbabwe by a Minnesota dentist reignited the debate over wildlife poaching. But the most trafficked mammal in the world is likely one you've never heard of. NPR's Jackie Northam has this report.
JACKIE NORTHAM, BYLINE: Lisa Hywood remembers the first time she ever set eyes on a pangolin. It was in 1994, and she had just founded the Tikki Hywood Trust, a wildlife conservation sanctuary in Zimbabwe. One morning, someone dropped off an injured pangolin that had been confiscated from an illegal trader.
LISA HYWOOD: And this animal arrived in a sack smelling something horrendous. And I looked at this animal, and I thought it's like no other mammal that I've ever encountered.
NORTHAM: The pangolin is about the size of a raccoon and looks like an artichoke with legs. Its head and body are covered with an armor of thorny scales, giving it the appearance of a reptile. And they curl up into a tight ball when they get scared.
HYWOOD: I actually, at that moment, felt completely helpless because I had no idea how to take care of that animal. And at that moment, I actually said to myself, right, you need to figure this out.
NORTHAM: That was not the last pangolin that showed up on Hywood's doorstep.
JEFF FLOCKEN: The estimate right now is that almost a million pangolins were illegally trafficked in the last 10 years.
NORTHAM: Jeff Flocken is a regional director with the International Fund for Animal Welfare.
FLOCKEN: They're finding literally crates filled with pangolin scales, you know, entire boats with bags and bags of live or frozen and dead pangolins that are being taken from the wild.
NORTHAM: All eight species of pangolins found over large parts of Africa and Asia are facing extinction, according to Jonathan Baillie, a pangolin specialist at the International Union for Conservation of Nature in London.
JONATHAN BAILLIE: The demand for the pangolins is actually in China and Vietnam. And the Asian pangolins, particularly the Chinese pangolin, has basically been wiped out.
NORTHAM: Baillie says, traditionally, the pangolin have been prized for their scales. They're used for traditional Chinese medicine. But Baillie says nowadays, its meat is considered a luxury item by a growing middle class in Vietnam and China. It's a way of saying you've made it.
BAILLIE: Now we're seeing that the body's actually being eaten as some sort of celebration when a business deal is done. So the price can go up to many hundreds of dollars per kilogram.
NORTHAM: Baillie says that as the number of Asian species decline, there's an increasing demand for African pangolins. International trade of the African species is allowed with the right paperwork. But they're being poached and sent to Asian markets at an alarming rate. Lisa Hywood says it's caught many African governments off guard.
HYWOOD: In Africa, you are dealing with a species that most of the authorities, up until, I can honestly say, this year, are not aware of the plight of the pangolin. They do not understand why the pangolin has such a demand in Asia.
NORTHAM: And pangolin products show up in the U.S. as well. Part of the problem is the pangolin doesn't have a high profile like the elephant or rhino, so it's easier to slip the live animal or its byproducts pass customs officials, says Luke Bond, a criminal intelligence officer with Interpol's environmental security program.
LUKE BOND: There's opportunities to conceal these animals. They're small. Border control agencies are often not trained enough to recognize what they actually might be.
NORTHAM: And the illegal trafficking in pangolins is linked to other crimes.
BOND: And I've seen it first hand in ever operation I've been in for the last 10 years. I've seen drugs and weapons and financial crime activities associated with the wildlife trade.
NORTHAM: But the sheer speed with which the pangolin is being trafficked is now pushing governments and conservationists into high gear to get the message out - not easy when many people haven't heard of the pangolin.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As Character) What are you?
UNIDENTIFIED ACTRESS: (As Character) I'm a pangolin.
UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As Character) A penguin?
UNIDENTIFIED ACTRESS: (As Character) A pangolin.
NORTHAM: A pangolin will soon be making a debut on an Angry Birds game. There's an effort to list all eight species under the U.S. Endangered Species Act and another to make it illegal to trade the pangolin under Cites, the multilateral treaty to protect endangered animals. For Lisa Hywood, the effort to save the pangolin is paramount. In the two decades since that first scared pangolin was dropped off in a sack, she's created a sanctuary for rehabilitating the animals, one of only a handful in the world.
HYWOOD: So it's not animal that you can just collect and put in a cage and feed an artificial diet. That's not going to work. Pangolins don't adapt very well to captivity at all.
NORTHAM: At the moment, Hywood is caring for nine pangolins. Each one forages in the wild with its own security detail to protect it from poachers. Jackie Northam, NPR News.