Tag Archives: #IUCN

Swift Moment

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A cloudless evening and the shrill cries of a small group of European swifts on an evening hunt for insects.

A summer concert told in sharp notes.

The swift has a wide range and enough numbers to be merit a population status of Least Concern from the IUCN. Considering the slow but persistent declines in common birds such as house sparrows due to habitat loss, it’s good to see a familiar bird adapting to changing circumstances.

The old farms in our French village all have ledges placed between the beams of barns for to support nesting birds (and to keep the floor beneath somewhat cleaner), a nice old habit that made space for wildlife in a way that modern garages and houses don’t.

Our own garage is still open and has old beams, home to several swift nests every year. Seeing them whisk in and out of the buildings at breakneck speeds is a thrill that never gets old.

A few of the many ledges for nests in the barn next door.
Photo: PKR

 

I found this interesting clip on the extreme lifestyle of the European swift – it can stay aloft for up to ten months of the year, and naps while gliding. Swifts might be common, but they are very special.

Pieces in the Mosaic

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Over the past few decades, we’ve grown used to campaigns imploring us to save one animal or another. Usually the photogenic or impressive species. Save The Whale, Save The Panda, and so on. Shortly after the United States’ Endangered Species Act was passed in 1973, a case came along about a modest creature, the Tennessee snail darter. In keeping with its unprepossessing name, this innocuous little member of the perch family became famous for getting in the way of a construction project, the Tellico Dam.

The snail darter wasn’t considered glorious enough, in and of itself, to be a contender for ‘Save The’ status. And if the Endangered Species Act had been passed unanimously in the Senate and 390-12 in the House of Representatives, the snail darter showed the limits of congressional commitment. There were those who correctly saw that the movement to save the snail darter was not a campaign for a single species, but for an ecosystem at the expense of an infrastructure project.

Fish, Roman mosaic.

Republican Howard Baker of Tennessee argued at the time that “the snail darter has become an unfortunate example of environmental extremism, and this kind of extremism, if rewarded and allowed to persist, will spell the doom to the environmental protection movement in this country more surely and more quickly than anything else. (…)we who voted for the Endangered Species Act with the honest intentions of protecting such glories of nature as the wolf, the eagle, and other treasures have found that extremists with wholly different motives are using this noble act for meanly obstructive ends.”

This type of hierarchical perspective – the attitude that some animals are more noble, more glorious, prettier and thus more worthy of protection than others because we are impressed by them in some way – is one of those markers of humanity that trips us up time and time again. It’s typically human to not see the forest for all the trees.

It’s hard to imagine in this automated age, but let’s try to picture the mosaic of a human city as an ecosystem brimming with different species. Let’s insert activities and services in that world in the place of species, which often perform ‘services’ in their ecosystems.

St. Stephen mosaic, Askalon.
Source: Kingdom of Jordan

And at some point, some of the smaller activities start to disappear. Flower shops, say, or soap manufacturers, winemakers. Not disastrous, but not ideal. We miss the soap quite a bit, and the wine, and we give up decorative bouquets.

And then maybe a few bigger activities. Gas stations. Grocery infrastructure. Clothes shops. Coffee growers. We can still function and adapt, but life isn’t what it was. And then maybe a few big ones. Banks, grain growers, water infrastructure maintenance, cell phone towers. Electricity generators.

If we acknowledge that our society needs most of its parts to fully function, why should it be any different for the individual species of a given ecosystem?

The Lod mosaic.
Source: Espoarte

It’s been decades since various laws, treaties, and organizations were formed around the world to protect the environment, from the IUCN (The World Conservation Union) to CITES (Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora), and yet for the general public, species preservation is still by and large perceived as a one-off undertaking.

We are only beginning to understand the role that species play in the mosaics of their ecosystems, even as they are going extinct at the greatest rate since the Cretaceous era 66 million years ago. Meanwhile, as we insist that our human ecosystem is has more value, we are losing up to 140,000 species every year.

We imagine societal dystopias all the time in books, movies and games. We don’t even know what the ecosystem we call home will look like as we move further through the Anthropocene extinction event currently underway.

So do your bit. Support endangered species movements and campaigns. Saving a species, even something as ‘lowly’ as a snail darter, means a lot more than just saving a pretty face.

I wrote this for International Endangered Species Day – but it’s equally relevant for International Day for Biodiversity. Obviously.

And if you think that’s too many days to think about biodiversity, conservation, endangered species and extinction, my response would be: it’s 363 short of how many days these issues are of relevance to each and every one of us.

 

*Note: The snail darter is now considered ‘vulnerable’ after a few more small populations were found elsewhere in Tennessee. The economic impact of the Tellico Dam has not been assessed.

Failed Elver Balance

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As the season comes to an end for harvesting the young American eel known as elver, I thought I would revisit a topic I’ve often written about on ChampagneWhisky. The American eel was once a remarkably abundant marine animal along the eastern seaboard of the United States and Canada. Along with its close cousins, the Japanese eel and the European eel, it was so plentiful in coastal waterways that people could go out with pillowcases and easily fill them with eel.

The American eel was a staple of early Colonial life, and was the main dish served at early Thanksgiving meals. Japanese eel was so popular that it was fished to near extinction in the 20th century, and the same holds true for the European eel.

Father William balances an eel on his nose from Alice in Wonderland.
Illustration: Charles Folkard

These days, elvers are fished in a very limited number of locations, during a short season – transparent, around the size of an earthworm, they are sold by the pound for shipping to aquaculture facilities in Asia. The appetite is large, the supply of local eel all but decimated outside of fish farms.

It’s not just the overfishing that is putting this mysterious animal at risk around the world. Habitat loss in the form of compromised river ways, climate change, pollution that affects reproductivity, barriers like dams or hydroelectric plants that block the progress of eels and elvers to their traditional grounds.

In Maine, where elvers represent an annual revenue of around $10 million (not counting the lucrative black market, of course), elver fishermen who hold the highly coveted and non-transferable licenses are, on the average, over the age of 50. There’s concern that their skills and knowledge won’t be transferred if the licensing process isn’t opened up to include younger newcomers via lottery.

Father William balances an eel on his nose from Alice in Wonderland
Illustration: John Tenniel

In the United Kingdom, fishing for the critically endangered European elvers is highly restricted, and patrols try to control any poaching.

Here’s my question: All three major eels used for human consumption are classified as endangered on the IUCN Red List, or in the case of the European eel, critically endangered. These animals have complex life cycles that still hold a large measure of mystery – they breed and spawn in the ocean, they return to rivers and lakes to grow. This complex process is one reason they can’t simply be farmed like some other fish.

They traverse thousands of miles in ever smaller numbers, and if this year’s catch included 600,000 elvers, that’s half a million fewer than will now be able to keep their species alive through all the other threats.

Glass eel, unpigmented elver, post-larval stage of the American Eel (Anguilla rostrata)
Photo: G. Verreault/Gov’t of Canada Species at Risk Registry

With all due respect to the fisheries along the eastern coast of North America, to the revived fisheries of the UK, to the aquaculture of Asian countries, maybe it’s time we lost our appetite for eel, at least for a while. Let’s grow other industries, other appetites, other revenues that aren’t carried out on the sinuous backs of ancient animals.

We think we can balance our relationship with the eel – but this won’t last.

Let the ageing fishermen of Maine record their knowledge, let the practices fade until they can, perhaps, be revived if and when the eels return.

Snake Compass

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Python skeleton Source: Worrapol Koranuntachai /123rf

Python skeleton
Source: Worrapol Koranuntachai /123rf

Burmese pythons (Python bivittatus) are a successful invasive species in Florida that have been profiting from local wildlife and few natural predators. Native to Southeast Asia and listed by the IUCN as vulnerable or endangered in their original habitats, abandoned or escaped pythons have been thriving in the Florida Everglades, to the dismay of conservationists trying to protect indigenous species there. Not much is known about how the snakes move or take up a new residence.

As it turns out, pythons have a distinct sense of  direction and territory when it comes to their habitat. A recent study published by the Royal Society journal Biology Letters suggests that pythons use a homing instinct to venture out from their usual territory and then find their way back.

A research team tracked several pythons – some of them trapped and removed miles away from their territories, some left in their adopted areas – to see whether the snakes that had been removed would be able to find their way home.

Source: Deimos in Flames / Deviantart

Source: Deimos in Flames / Deviantart

And indeed, all the relocated snakes demonstrated great determination to return to where they’d been captured in the first place. Most of them succeeded in finding their way back. The snakes which had been tagged and released without relocation moved around within a much more limited area, usually returning to their own territory.

The snakes clearly have both a ‘map sense’, which tells them where they are in relation to ‘home’, and a ‘compass sense’, which tells them in which direction to guide their movement. And it’s likely that this ability isn’t limited to the Burmese python – snake navigational abilities just haven’t yet been widely studied across many species.

According to this article, researchers say the internal python map “could be magnetic, like sea turtles, while the compass could be guided by the stars, olfactory (smell) cues, or by polarised sunlight – all of which have been shown to be used by reptiles.” Gaining knowledge of how snakes travel and navigate should prove useful in controlling their spread.

What I find interesting is how well the Burmese python has adjusted its internal compass to an entirely new corner of the planet from where it evolved. Having said that, another study published late last year suggests that Burmese pythons are among the most rapidly evolving vertebrates in the world.

How did the Burmese python learn to redefine home so quickly?

Source: gortan123/123rf

Source: gortan123/123rf

Bumblebee Stumble

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A bumblebee climbs out of a roadside nest. Photo: PK Read

A bumblebee climbs out of a roadside nest.
Photo: PK Read

I was running a couple of days ago when I heard the thunderous buzzing of a bumblebee. A big fellow bobbed past my head and took a sudden dive, disappearing into the roadside greenery. I waited for a moment, and the bumblebee (or one of its relations) came clambering back out of a hole.

Bumbleebees build nests rather than bee hives; they are unlike honeybees in other ways, as well. The nests usually contain fewer than 200 individuals rather than the thousands of bees that populate a hive, and among bumblebees, only the queen survives the winter in her next, living off the contents of tiny honey pots.

What bumblebees share with honeybees, however, is that they are under threat from habitat loss, climate change, intensification of agriculture, pesticides, and illness.

It looks like some of the viruses that have been affecting honeybees may be making the jump to bumblebees, as well.

Illustration of Queen/worker Short-haired bumblebee Image: Geoff Allen / Short-haired Bumblebee Project

Illustration of Queen/worker Short-haired bumblebee
Image: Geoff Allen / Short-haired Bumblebee Project

There are over 250 known species of the Bombus genus, family Apidae, mostly native to the northern hemisphere.

An estimated quarter of Europe’s bumblebees are now at risk of extinction – the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) has listed 16 of Europe’s 68 bumblebee species as at risk. Three of Europe’s five most important insect pollinators are bumblebees species.

Bumblebees can nest in a variety of places, from porches to house wall cavities, but bumblebees rarely sting unless threatened, and won’t damage structures.

For the moment, our area still seems to have a thriving number of bumblebees. At any rate, enough of them that they bumble into me on walks and runs.

Bumblebee lifecycle Source: Bumblebee.org

Bumblebee lifecycle
Source: Bumblebee.org

Playing Favorites

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red-scale-endangered-rwpAs with anything else, there tend to be trends and favorites when it comes to endangered animal species. The polar bear, the orang-utan, the rhinoceros, the tiger, the lion are the iconic poster animals of conservation. The animals that draw attention, affection, and donations. We like to identify with our favorites, and like to think that our favorite animal says something about who we are as individuals.

They are often the alpha creatures of their ecosystems, the main hunters or the largest animals. Maybe it’s in human nature to associate ourselves with the big guys. And from the standpoint of conservation, it’s not the worst approach. Saving the big guys, by definition, means trying to save all the other elements that support their survival. The ecosystems, the prey, and territory.

And then there are the little guys. The ones that fill a niche between smallest and largest, or look like any number of other, similar animals, or are too little known to achieve star conservation status.

These forgotten species come from all corners of the animal world, from snails to clams to sloths to owls. Or, until recently, the pangolin.

What prompted me to write this today, however, was the small news item that a famous pop singer, Lady Gaga, was bitten by a slow loris that had been brought in as a prop for her music video, which was being shot in Los Angeles.

Loris faces Source: Wikipedia / Lydekker, R. (1904)

Loris faces
Source: Wikipedia / Lydekker, R. (1904)

 There was another recent slow loris story when Rihanna had her photo taken with a captive loris in Phuket, Thailand, last year. I’m pretty sure neither of them knew that the slow loris population is rapidly decreasing, and that whoever held a slow loris up next to them had directly contributed to that decline.

All eight species of the slow loris (genus Nycticebus) are currently listed as vulnerable or endangered, due to their popularity in the pet trade, or to their supposed medicinal values. The slow loris is a small primate that doesn’t travel well, it doesn’t breed well in captivity, and it doesn’t make a good pet. I won’t even go into the unspeakable treatment undergone by the slow loris to make it ‘suitable’ for handling. But it has those adorable eyes.

The total number of animal species on Earth is estimated at 8.7 million.  Source: National Geographic / IUCN

The total number of animal species on Earth is estimated at 8.7 million.
Source: National Geographic / IUCN

I suppose, and hope, that the slow loris will win its conservation advocates, perhaps even aided by these stories, because it is particularly cute and looks more like a toy than like a real animal. With any luck, these stories won’t make more people head out to the markets where the slow loris is sold openly, in spite of its status and the ban in all countries on selling it or any of its parts.

I suspect the multitude of endangered arthropods and molluscs won’t have it as easy. The endangered list grows longer by the day, even as there are efforts in the United States to roll back the Endangered Species Act.

It requires a widening of the gaze to stop playing favorites, changing our habits, and an acknowledgement that not all creatures are simply there for our amusement and consumption.

The Happy Pangolin

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It’s the third annual World Pangolin Day, a time to raise awareness of the strange and wondrous animal that is the single most encountered mammal in the illegal global trade in endangered animals.

Pangolin Source: Our Beautiful World

Pangolin
Source: Our Beautiful World

The odd pangolin, a scaly anteater that looks like a cross between a streamlined badger and a pine cone, is captured and consumed in the mistaken belief that its keratin scales hold medicinal value – although they are little different from human fingernails. As the pangolin grows ever more scarce, pangolin flesh, and even the fetuses, are made into pricey soups as a demonstration of luxury consumption.

Pangolin & tongue Source: Platyoctopie / Deviantart

Pangolin & tongue
Source: Platyoctopie / Deviantart

Meanwhile, the eight species of pangolin in the world are rapidly becoming extinct.

In honor of the day, I wanted to make a Happy Pangolin cocktail, a drink that reflected the long anteater tongue, the scales, the ants, and the tart appeal of the pangolin.

I started with this – hard apple cider, a slice of cherimoya fruit (note the black seeds for ants), and a long, slender slice of cucumber for the pangolin tongue. I made a reduction of basil essence, mixed that with cognac, and poured it over the fruit.

Happy Pangolin One The best looking, but blandest cocktail.

Happy Pangolin One
The best looking, but blandest cocktail.

But I was unsatisfied with the taste – too sweet, too bland. A pangolin is many things, but it is not bland.

So I moved on. To kiwi fruit (note the black seeds for the ants) mashed with a bit of sugar and basil, the cucumber tongue, and this time, calvados, prosecco and a scaly garnish of pineapple skin.

Well. It tasted just fine, quite delicious, actually. But it was murky, the basil floated around aimlessly. A third try, mashing together the kiwi and basil, rendered the basil flavor too acidic.

Happy Pangolin Two Tasty, but murky.

Happy Pangolin Two
Tasty, but murky. Ditto for Happy Pangolin Three, which is not shown here.

Finally, running out of cucumber, I made this variation. A bit of brown sugar in the bottom of a glass, followed by half slices of kiwi. Prosecco carefully poured over the fruit (it fizzes easily), followed by a shot of calvados, then a cucumber tongue, a slice of pineapple skin perched on the side, garnished with a sprig of fresh basil.

It’s tangy, refreshing, unexpected and overall, pretty good.

Happy Pangolin Four The current favorite, to be reattempted when I have more cucumber for a longer tongue.

Happy Pangolin Four
The current favorite, to be reattempted when I have more cucumber for a longer tongue.

What did I learn from making a Happy Pangolin for World Pangolin Day?

Much like the campaign to save the pangolin, the road to success is paved with many failed attempts, there is no single way to reach the goal of a Happy Pangolin. Any and all variations must be tried. Tenacity and determination are of paramount importance.

Source: Annimaticus

Source: Annimaticus

 

Go here to find out what you can do to support an end to killing and trade in pangolins.

Find out more at Annimaticus, at the IUCN-SSC Pangolin Specialist Group, and at Project Pangolin. Let’s help make sure this oddball branch on the Tree of Life doesn’t wither!

The Pangolin branch on the phylogenetic tree. Source: OneZoom

The Pangolin branch on the phylogenetic tree.
Source: OneZoom

And in the meantime, I hope you enjoy a Happy Pangolin with friends this weekend!

Complex Bridging

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Mobius Bridge design Source: NEXT

Möbius Bridge design
Source: NEXT

A new bridge project was announced in China this month, the Möbius Bridge. Designed by Dutch architecture firm NEXT, the complicated structure will span the Dragon King Harbor River in China’s Hunan Province.

NEXT describes the bridge as a “construction with the intersecting connections based on the principle of the Möbius ring,” which will “connect a diversity of routings on different heights.”

A different kind of bridge, the African Elephant Summit, was forged over the past few days in Gaborone, Botswana.

Convened by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) and the government of Botswana, the summit ended with the successful signing of a list of 14 Urgent Measures to stem illegal poaching of elephants and the illegal international trade in elephant parts.

Highly prized African elephant (Loxodonta africana) tusks. © WWF-Canon / Martin Harvey

Highly prized African elephant (Loxodonta africana) tusks.
© WWF-Canon / Martin Harvey

The list includes Urgent Measure 6, which aims to “strengthen cooperation among law enforcement agencies in range, transit, and consumer states,” and indicates that this agreement bridges the states in which elephants are poached (among them Gabon, Kenya Niger and Zambia), the states known for ivory transit (Vietnam, Philippines and Malaysia), and the states driving ivory demand (China, United States and Thailand).

IUCN Director General Julia Marton-Lefevre was quoted as saying, “We are very pleased with the result of the summit, especially as it involves some of the most important countries along the illegal ivory value chain.”

© WWF-Canon / Folke Wulf

© WWF-Canon / Folke Wulf

She continued, “We hope that these outcomes will go beyond the summit’s focus on African elephants and boost broader efforts to combat illegal wildlife trade in other species which have been threatened by it, such as rhinos and pangolins.”

It will have to be combined with efforts to reduce poverty, corruption and demand, the triad of drivers in the illegal elephant trade, but the international agreement forms what will hopefully be a strong, multi-level approach of getting from here to there.

Placing Value

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There’s a well-known old American film called It’s A Wonderful Life. It stars Jimmy Stewart as George Bailey, a good and generous businessman who finds himself in deep financial trouble. A banker, the infamous cinematic villian named Mr. Potter, reminds a desperate George Bailey that as a last resort, Bailey has a life insurance policy. “You’re worth more dead than alive,” scoffs Mr. Potter, for whom the value of life can only be measured in its monetary amount.

And so to the Cape Pangolin.

Baby pangolin Photo: Christian Boix

Baby pangolin
Photo: Christian Boix

The young pangolin above is one of the first Cape Pangolins ever born in captivity. It is the result of the conservation efforts of the Rare & Endangered Species Trust (REST) in Namibia. An adult pangolin had been bought by someone from a street vendor, and then turned over to the REST group. The adult was a pregnant female who gave birth at the REST facilities.

In terms of monetary value, this pinecone-scaled creature is in the negative area. It cost the person who rescued it from the street vendor an unknown amount, and is costing donation money and time with the REST team.

On the other hand, if this little pangolin were to enter the international illegal trade cycle by getting captured and shipped off to China, it would be worth a lot more, at least by the measurements we use to talk about ‘value’ . The most recent estimate I could find was $1000/kilo of fresh pangolin meat, with prices rising as the pangolin populations dwindle and disappear.

Pangolin soup Photo: TRAFFIC

Pangolin soup
Photo: TRAFFIC

Now, if that little pangolin were to make it alive to a certain kind of restaurant in Vietnam or China, catch the eye of a certain kind of consumer and get chosen to end up in a bowl of soup, it would be a very valuable pangolin indeed, if we are only using money as our measure. This bowl of pangolin soup could cost up to $700.

If the restaurant owner were to harvest and sell the scales – and at these prices, it would be a foolish owner who didn’t – the pangolin might be worth another $175/kilo of scales.

Pangolin scales for sale Photo: TRAFFIC

Pangolin scales for sale
Photo: TRAFFIC

We don’t have a measurement for what a pangolin is worth in its natural environment, or what it’s worth to its natural environment.

For example, the loss of elephants to some forests is worth most of the large trees because the elephants aren’t there to carry and distribute large seed pods. And the loss of the large trees has a knock-on effect of loss in habitat, biodiversity, and habitat survival. But until that habitat has something humans value – by which I mean something we can monetize – then none of that tends to mean much.

For the time being, however, this young pangolin has landed in one of the few places of humans don’t value the (utterly fabricated) medicinal qualities of its meat and scales, or the sad boasting rights of being able to afford a nearly extinct animal on one’s plate.

But unless it stays under the protective wing of its rescuers, this pangolin will continue to be worth more dead than alive.

Project Pangolin

Unforeseen Gatherings

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Walrus

Sea ice located along the shallow continental shelf of the Bering Sea usually provides a diving board, a hunting perch and resting place for female walrus and their young. With sea ice retreating into water too deep for hunting, the walrus have had to find safer shores.

Around 10,000 of them have gathered on a small barrier island near the village of Point Lay in northwestern Alaska. They were photographed by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), which has been carrying out aerial surveys of marine mammals in areas of potential gas and oil development.

It’s not the first time the walrus have gathered on dry land to escape treacherous waters. While there, they remain more vulnerable to hunters, polar bears, and other stress factors that have, in the past, prompted deadly stampedes.

What looks like a termite mound here is actually a massive walrus pod. This clickable image can be enlarged.

Walrus gathering on Alaskan coastline Image: Stan Churches/NOAA

Here’s a quick update on a couple of topics I’ve followed over the past year:

Elvers

I’ve written several times about the ongoing discussion surrounding the American eel. More specifically, the harvesting of young eel – elvers – during their spring run along the American East Coast in spring.

Prices for live elvers have skyrocketed over the past few years due to high demand in Asia, where the local populations have been decimated by overfishing, environmental pressures and natural disasters. The young eel are shipped to farms, where they are grown to adulthood and sold for consumption all over the world.

In light of how little is actually known about the current population and health of the eel population, there was talk earlier this year of tightening regulations when it comes to fishing elvers. This has, for the moment, been postponed until further notice. The Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission’s American eel management board has been unable to reach a consensus, likely pushing any decision until right before the 2014 season starts in early spring.

My overview of the American eel is here, with some of the other posts here and here.

A good discussion of the current fraught situation is here.

Via: glooskapandthefrog.org

Via: glooskapandthefrog.org

Pangolin

One of the more obscure objects of international animal smuggling is the odd pangolin, the scaled anteater which inhabits its very own lonely branch on the mammalian tree of life. I’ve talked about them here, when I looked at seizures of illegal shipments.

Pangolins are in demand because their scales (which are no different in composition than fingernails or hair) are used in some traditional medicines, while pangolin meat and fetuses are served as a delicacy in some East Asian cuisines. The pangolin is protected under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES).

The pangolin is considered to be one of the world’s most trafficked animals, yet I find very little on conviction rates following seizures.

Six men were convicted in Malaysia this year of smuggling 150 pangolins, sentenced to a year and jail and fined. Meanwhile, over seven tons of pangolin – some of them still alive – were confiscated by customs officials in Hai Phong, Vietnam. And in a baffling decision, the seized goods were auctioned off rather than destroyed, thus re-entering the illicit market.

No mention of what happened to the smugglers themselves.

The world’s first ever pangolin conference with the International Union for Conservation of Nature – Species Survival Commission (IUCN-SSC) Pangolin Specialist Group met in Singapore in July. Perhaps this will bring more attention this unique creature, hopefully before it is trafficked into extinction.

Infographic: Annamiticus