New York (July 19, 2017)--Hunting of pangolins, the world’s most illegally traded mammal, increased by a staggering 150 percent in Central African forests from 1970s up to 2014, according to a new study by the University of Sussex, WCS (Wildlife Conservation Society), and other groups.

The first-ever study of its kind, just published in Conservation Letters, shows the true scale of pangolin exploitation across the continent. The international research team, which includes researchers from academia and conservation organisations, state that between 0.4 to 2.7 million pangolins are harvested annually from forests in Cameroon, Central African Republic, Equatorial Guinea, Gabon, Democratic Republic of Congo and Republic of Congo.

The team used data from 113 sites in 14 African countries to estimate the total annual harvest of pangolins. Worryingly the new study reveals that pangolins are now more sought after than elephant ivory: the proportion of the total number of vertebrates killed represented by pangolins has gone up 50-fold in the last forty years.

Pangolins are hunted and traded for food and traditional medicine throughout their range in Africa, and recent evidence has also shown an increasing trade of African pangolins to some countries in Asia. The researchers show that the price of pangolins has increased in urban markets since the 1990s, with a 5.8 times increase in price observed for the sought-after giant pangolin despite it being protected.

The team are calling on governments across the continent to increase the capacity to enforce international trade bans, embark on education and outreach programmes, and monitor pangolin populations.

Daniel Ingram, lead author of the study from the University of Sussex, said: “Our new study shows that African pangolins are at risk. We now have the opportunity to ensure that these species do not follow the severe declines of the Asian pangolins. If we do not act now to better understand and protect these charismatic animals, we may lose them in the future.”

WCS Conservation Scientist and co-author Fiona Maisels said: “Pangolins are extremely difficult to see, let alone monitor. They are nocturnal; in the daytime they are either underground or high up in trees, they do not call, make conspicuous nests, or provide us with easily recognizable dungpiles, unlike the other species of wildlife that we monitor. To date, we have no way of estimating how many still exist in the forests of Central Africa. What we do know is that as many as 2.7 million animals from three species in Central Africa (and one from Southern Africa) are being taken every year. We need to find out, rapidly, how to monitor these species, and ban their international trade if we are to protect these imperiled species.”

Ingram added: “Compared to other species, relatively little is known about African pangolins, only gaining international attention in recent years. With hunting increasing, it is crucial we investigate how this links to the illegal wildlife trade. The engagement of governments and local people will be critical to the conservation of African pangolins.”

Professor Jörn Scharlemann, from the University of Sussex, said: Overexploitation is one of the main pressures driving wildlife, like the pangolins, closer to extinction, yet data to evaluate the pressures underlying species’ declines are scarce.

“Collating data from local studies collected by hundreds of researchers allows us to provide vital information on the regional exploitation of African pangolins at a critical time for the survival of these species. Bringing these individual studies together allows us to see the bigger picture that can help inform conservation policy and provide the evidence to governments across the world required to step-up and take action.”

The collaborative study, entitled ‘Assessing wide-scale pangolin exploitation by scaling local data’, has been published in the journal Conservation Letters and can be found here. The international team involved researchers from the Universities of Sussex, Stirling and Cambridge, University of Dschang, Chinhoyi University of Technology, Norwegian University of Science and Technology, Kyoto University, Duke University, University of Copenhagen, Montana Tech, University of Florida, and Georg-August-Universität Göttingen; and from the Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR), UN Environment World Conservation Monitoring Centre, Institut de Recherches en Ecologie Tropicale (CENAREST), Wildlife Conservation Society, Born Free Foundation, Ministry of Forestry and Wildlife Cameroon, and the National Park Agency Gabon.