The “most-traded wild animal” is one that most people don’t know exists: the pangolin

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Smuggling at a scale exceeding human comprehension

The “most-traded wild animal” is one that most people don’t know exists: the pangolin. Each year, an estimated 10,000 of these spiny anteaters are smuggled into China from Southeast Asia, though experts think the real number is much higher, says a new report (paywall) by Chinese wildlife enforcement officials and UK researchers. Pangolin-smuggling is the latest example of China’s booming demand for illegal wildlife, a major driver of the $19 billion-a-year global trade.

The same scales that shield these spiny anteaters from predators are a prized ingredient in traditional Chinese medicine. Prices for pangolin scales have skyrocketed since the 1990s, when they fetched around $14 per kilogram ($6.4 per pound); by 2008, they had hit $300 per kilo. Now a kilo costs around $600.

The animal is valuable for more than just its scales, though. In southern China, pangolins fetch up to $1,000 per animal in restaurants catering to the “wild flavor” culinary culture. Fetuses in particular are considered a delicacy.

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