The illegal trade of the world's most trafficked mammal could be disrupted by new research from the University of Stirling. 

Pangolins are one of the world’s most trafficked mammals and are hunted for their meat which is considered a delicacy in south-east Asian countries including China and Vietnam. Their scales are also a sought-after resource in traditional Chinese medicine. 

Along with bats, the animals were initially blamed for the outbreak of Covid-19 in China, after two Chinese scientists first put forward the theory in February 2020. 

Eight different species of pangolins are found across 23 countries, though three of the species originating from Asia are at serious risk of extinction. Once the Asian species became scarce, traffickers began targeting the white-bellied pangolin in Africa. 

The Stirling researchers have now developed a map which uses genomics to trace the origins of trafficked pangolins. 

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Scales can be taken from trafficked animals and subsequent genetic screening able to locate within 125 miles of where they originated from. It is hoped this will allow law enforcement and environmental agencies to be able to identify poaching hotspots that are supplying the international supply chain of pangolin products. 

This was achieved through matching up genetic samples from the African species with roughly one million animals sampled that had been trafficked to Hong Kong, allowing locations to be pinpointed where the most intense poaching is taking place, and a map to be created following trade routes. 

“Someone could unload a sack of scales from a ship in Hong Kong, and you could take a single scale and determine, for instance, that it came from an animal near the city of Bata in Equatorial Guinea,” said Dr Thomas Smith, an evolutionary biologist from the University of California Los Angeles (UCLA), which worked on the research with Stirling. 

Poachers in West and Central Africa typically sell the animals for £200 - the equivalent of nearly a year’s salary in some poaching regions - but the trafficking organisations take most of the money. 

Nigeria has been identified through the research as the major hub from which trafficked pangolins are distributed, primarily to Asia. 

The animals are most sought after in markets in China, Thailand, Vietnam, Laos and Singapore. 

China has set intentions to stamp out the pangolin trade, ruling out the use of its scales in traditional medicine in 2020. Trade of all species of pangolin is protected under international law, but it does not stop the illegal market from continuing to function or for loopholes to be exploited. 

As many as 200,000 pangolins were consumed in Asia each year as of 2020. 

Scientists believe this new research is an opportunity to disrupt the international wildlife trade and bolster anti-trafficking measures. 

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The work has been focused in the central African country of Gabon, with the most recent breakthrough coming from genetic sampling of its wild pangolins which began in 2014. 

The University of Stirling’s partnership with Gabon goes back to 1980, when they began working with local scientists and the government, with the aim of producing research that can help them create policy to address the issue in the country. 

The Herald:

Professor Kate Abernethy of the University of Stirling’s Faculty of Natural Sciences, who has worked on the research, said: “This new research actually began a decade ago, to address the emerging threat posed by international trafficking of African pangolins, as Asian species declined in the wild.

“This research will significantly strengthen Gabon’s ability to conserve its native species and manage them proactively in the face of illegal harvesting for exterior trade.”

Dr Jen Tinsman of UCLA’s Centre for Tropical Research, which collaborated on the paper with Stirling, said: “We don't know how many white-bellied pangolins are left because they're really hard to study in the wild. But we know this level of harvest is unsustainable, no matter the actual population size.”

She added: “If we can get our tracking methods into the hands of enforcement officers in those countries where pangolins are most threatened, it would allow near real-time monitoring of illegal trade and help shut it down.