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South African activists try to protect endangered pangolins

A rescued pangolin is released in the forest by government wildlife and conservation officers in Karo district located in North Sumatra province on July 31, 2012 after Indonesian police intercepted 85 endangered pangolins, most of them alive despite being stuffed into sacks by suspected smugglers. The animals, also known as scaly anteaters and prized mostly in China and Vietnam as food and medicine, were crammed into 14 sacks when they were seized at a bus station. (Photo:: AFP/GettyImages)

JOHANNESBURG — As World Pangolin Day is marked around the globe, Saturday, some conservationists in South Africa are working to protect the endangered animals, including caring for a few that have been rescued from traffickers.

The eighth annual pangolin day is celebrated to raise awareness about the shy, nocturnal scaly anteater, which some wildlife organizations say is the world’s most trafficked animal.

In South Africa, traffickers often sell the pangolin meat locally and ship the scales to Asia, where they are in demand for use in traditional medicine. The growing illegal trade has prompted plans in South Africa for a rehabilitation center for sick or rescued pangolins as well as the deployment of sniffer dogs specially trained to detect the scales’ pungent aroma.

Africa’s four species of pangolins are under increasing pressure from poachers because Asia’s four species have been decimated, according to experts. While commercial trade in all eight species is forbidden, international confiscations of African pangolin scales amounted to about 47 tons in 2017, more than double the quantity seized in the previous year, said the African Pangolin Working Group, a conservation organization based in South Africa.

Customs officers look at seized endangered pangolin scales displayed during a press conference at the Kwai Chung Customhouse Cargo Examination Compound in Hong Kong on February 1, 2019. – Hong Kong customs officers unveiled a record seizure of pangolin scales on February 1, the latest huge haul to underscore the city’s central role in the lucrative and booming illegal wildlife trade. (ANTHONY WALLACE/AFP/Getty Images)

Dogs have been trained to check for hidden pangolin scales at South African borders and there are plans to create a “pangalorium” — a research and medical center for pangolins, including the growing number of live animals seized in sting operations.

Pangolin scales contain keratin, a protein also found in rhino horn and human fingernails. There is no scientific proof that they provide any medicinal value. Conservationists say well over 1 million pangolins have been poached since around 2000; the various kinds range from vulnerable to critically endangered on a list of threatened species.

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