sunda pangolin, a small scaly mammal about the size of a cocker spaniel with a long pointy headPangolins are currently one of the most, if not the most, poached mammal in the world. These scaly anteaters are hard to find in the wild due to their solitary and elusive nature. Yet, hundreds of tons of pangolin meat and scales have been seized around the world. The IUCN Pangolin Specialist Group estimates that more than a million pangolins have been harvested from the wild in the past decade.

With eight species in 48 countries across Asia and Africa, it is crucial to find out where the bulk of poaching is happening. The Center for Conservation Biology is working on a solution to this problem by using genetic techniques and the help of their Conservation Canines.

Our Center was selected as one of the four Grand Prize Winners working to combat illegal wildlife trade by the Wildlife Crime Tech Challenge.

Our goals are to pinpoint the source of pangolin seizures, identifying poaching hotspots that allow law enforcement to be focused on the most heavily poached populations. We have already demonstrated the power of this method with large seizures of ivory. We are now poised to adapt the method for pangolins – helping to stop the poaching before pangolins disappear from the wild.  Over 25% of all large seizures of pangolin scales are commingled with African elephant ivory, making concurrent investigation of ivory and pangolin scales in the same shipment a powerful tool for understanding how the major traffickers are acquiring and consolidating these products.

With the assistance of many partners around the world (the Smithsonian Institution National Museum of Natural History, Smithsonian Global Health Team/PREDICT, and Natural History Museum, London to name a few), a graduate student in our program, Hyeon Jeong (HJ) Kim, began building a SNP-based genetic reference maps for each species. Expanding on HJ’s dissertation work, we are validating a set of Single Nucleotide Polymorphisms or “SNPs,” and have begun collecting reference pangolin samples for all 8 species from across their ranges. We are also working with Singapore NPARKS Center for Wildlife Forensics, developing and testing protocols to representatively sample scales from large, multi-ton shipments (see image below). By applying the SNPs to pangolin seizures and comparing SNPs from seized pangolin scales to the SNPs from our reference maps, we will be able to confirm which species are present in the seizure, determine where the pangolin were poached, and make connections between multiple seizures of pangolin scales.

More broadly, our primary goal is to locate the sources and shipping locations of illicit wildlife products before they enter transit, where it becomes far more difficult and expensive to trace. Due to the occurrence of pangolin scales intermixed with elephant ivory in seizures, we are hopeful that this work will contribute to our efforts linking physical evidence across seizures, revealing the structure of transnational criminal organizations operating worldwide.


12-ton seizure of pangolin scales made by Singapore, July 2019. The same shipment also included 9 tons of African elephant ivory.