39 Rare Pangolins Rescued From Smugglers In China

Dozens of pangolins have been rescued after being discovered tightly packed into the back of a vehicle at a toll booth in China's Gaungxi province -- highlighting the ongoing threat of the illegal wildlife trade on one of the world's lesser-known endangered species.

Pangolins might not be a household name, but like elephants, rhinos, and other more charismatic species, their future is imperiled by poaching as well. Native to regions in both Africa and Asia, the scaly anteater relatives have long been a highly sought after species on the Chinese Black Market -- both for their meat, which is considered a delicacy, and their scales thought to have medicinal qualities.

The demand for pangolins has led to dramatic declines in their numbers, fetching around $1,000 per animal. In 2000, there were an estimated 50,000 pangolins left in China; Today, Conservation International estimates there to be fewer than 5,000.

As pangolins have grown scarce domestically, Chinese smugglers have begun to turn to other populations to feed demand. Last April, a boat bound for China loaded with 10 tons of frozen pangolins was uncovered, only after it ran aground on a protected reef in route back from the Philippines -- marking one of the largest seizures on record.

Like with the ivory and rhino horn trade, officials have vowed to beef up enforcement to catch wildlife smugglers, which makes this latest bust and rescue of 39 pangolins a heartening sign that that's indeed the case. Though sadly, as with other illicit animal products, until demand decreases, many more pangolins will be captured and imported undetected -- perhaps even until there are none left to be found.