Suffering at scale: the brutal reality of pangolin poaching


We completed a two-year study into traditional hunting practices in Assam, India alongside WildCRU (Wildlife Conservation Research Unit, University of Oxford). Our undercover researcher captured an upsetting video as well as images depicting the horrifying moment a terrified pangolin is killed.

Pangolins have earned the reputation as one of the most illegally trafficked mammal. While there is a lot of coverage of the extent of the illegal pangolin trade, our footage reveals just how cruel and painful the practice is for these gentle animals.

A horrifying ordeal 

The mobile phone video captured by our undercover researcher shows the terrified pangolin hiding from hunters in a hollowed-out tree, clinging for her life as her tail is tugged. The hunters use axes to cut the tree, but failing to remove the desperate animal, they light a fire to smoke her out.  

As the pangolin starts to suffocate and lose consciousness, it makes a bolt for freedom but is captured, bagged and taken to a hut where the next stage of the ordeal takes place.  

The pangolin is repeatedly bludgeoned with a machete until it can barely move. While bleeding, it is then thrown into a cauldron of boiling water, where its tragic struggle comes to an end.  

The world’s most trafficked mammal 

Pangolins have earned the reputation as one of the most illegally trafficked mammal. While there is a lot of coverage of the extent of the illegal pangolin trade, our footage reveals just how cruel and painful the practice is for these gentle animals. 

There are eight species of pangolin - four in Asia and four in Africa. Pangolins are also known as scaly anteaters. They’re the only mammals covered in scales, which can protect them from predators. Ironically, it’s these scales that are the driving force behind the illicit pangolin trade, which has put all pangolin species at high risk of extinction. 

Reliable estimates of how many pangolins remain in the wild are lacking, although it’s thought that over a million individual pangolins were taken from the wild between 2000 and 2013. You can read more about this terrible trade in our report, Suffering at scale: pangolin poaching for the traditional medicine trade

Why are pangolins being poached? 

Pangolin scales are used in traditional Asian medicine, particularly in China and Vietnam. They are believed to have curative properties; however, pangolin scales are made of keratin, the same material that makes human fingernails and hair, and have no proven medicinal value. 

Pangolin meat is also considered to be a delicacy in some countries, and the scales are also used as decorations for rituals and jewellery. 

We need to tackle illegal trading 

Dr. Neil D’Cruze, our global wildlife advisor and lead researcher said: “This footage shines a spotlight on how truly shocking the practice of hunting pangolins is. Not only is this a major conservation issue – it’s a devastating animal welfare concern. If we want to protect pangolins from pain and suffering in the countries they come from, we need to tackle the illegal poaching trade.” 

Professor David Macdonald, WildCRU, department of Zoology, University of Oxford, said: “Increasing demand driven by traditional Asian medicine is making pangolins a lucrative catch. It’s easy to see why they are being commercially exploited, as scales from just one pangolin can offer a life changing sum of money for people in these communities, but it’s in no way sustainable. Wild pangolin numbers are beginning to plummet.” 

To combat the global trade in their bodies and scales and to protect pangolins from the unimaginable suffering they endure we are calling for:  

  • Strong enforcement of national and international laws  
  • Removal of pangolins from the Pharmacopoeia of the People’s Republic of China – the traditional medicine handbook for the industry  
  • Investment in and promotion of herbal and synthetic alternatives   
  • Combined and coordinated efforts by governments, NGOs and the traditional Asian medicine community to eliminate consumer demand for pangolin-based traditional Asian medicines, particularly in China and Vietnam   
  • Support for alternative livelihoods, alleviation of poverty and education programmes within rural communities wherever pangolins are found globally, to stop the slaughter.  

How to help pangolins 

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Learn more about cruel pangolin poaching in our report, Suffering at scale: pangolin poaching for the traditional medicine trade.