Hunters in Assam are helping supply the illegal pangolin trade and new research that probes their motivations might point to measures that can reduce the poaching and sale of the species known as “the world’s most trafficked mammal.” An undercover video shot during the course of the research could prove to be a deterrent in and of itself, as it shows just how vicious and inhumane the pangolin trade can be.

Demand for pangolin scales is driven by practitioners of traditional medicine in rural areas throughout Africa and South and Southeast Asia, but most predominantly in China and Vietnam, though the scales have no scientifically proven health benefits. Pangolin meat is also considered a delicacy in some countries.

There are eight pangolin species, all listed as either Vulnerable, Endangered, or Critically Endangered on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. Illegal trade is considered the biggest threat to their survival. As of 2016, all eight species of pangolin have been listed under Appendix I of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species, the highest level of protection available under international law, which effectively bans commercial trade in the animals.

Researchers with London-headquartered NGO World Animal Protection and the University of Oxford spent two years studying traditional hunting practices in the state of Assam in northeast India. “[T]he drivers of trade at a global scale are relatively well known,” they write in a study published in the journal Nature Communications this week detailing their findings. “In contrast, information on what drives local people to hunt pangolins, and how this is connected with traditional cultural use, seems to be lacking for some communities.”

A pangolin in Gir Forest, Gujarat. Photo credit: Sandip Kumar/Wikimedia Commons.

The study focuses on hunters belonging to three locally prominent tribes in Assam, the Biate, the Dimasa and the Karbi. Through interviews with more than 140 hunters, the researchers determined that members of all three tribal groups had hunted pangolins at some point in the five-year period between 2011 and 2016. While pangolin meat is eaten locally, the researchers found that the hunters primarily target pangolins for their scales and the “substantial commercial gain” they reap by selling the scales to urban middlemen.

Each hunter reported capturing roughly one pangolin every year and that single animal could net them as much as 9,000 Indian rupees, or about $135, equivalent to four months’-worth of the local average income. “The majority of hunters (89%) stated that pangolins were less abundant than they were five years ago, which suggests off-take is unsustainable,” the researchers write in the study. “All hunters interviewed appeared to hunt pangolins occasionally, regardless of tribe, demography or income, which suggests that any mitigation strategy should focus on rural hunters.”

There are two species of pangolin that occur in Northeast India, the Indian pangolin (Manis crassicaudata) and the Chinese pangolin (Manis pentadactyla). They are listed on the IUCN Red List as Endangered and Critically Endangered, respectively.

“Increasing demand driven by traditional Asian medicine is making pangolins a lucrative catch,” Professor David Macdonald of Oxford University, a study co-author, said in a statement. “It’s easy to see why they are being commercially exploited, as scales from just one pangolin can offer a life changing sum of money for people in these communities, but it’s in no way sustainable. Wild pangolin numbers are beginning to plummet.”

Interventions to reduce poverty and promote alternative livelihoods are certainly necessary, the researchers write in the study, but they argue that these measures alone would likely be ineffective in reducing pangolin hunting: “Rather, there is a need for coordinated packages of mutually reinforcing interventions to address this pangolin hunting in a more comprehensive manner. In particular, implementing a demand reduction strategy targeting urban consumers is urgently required.”

The researchers also call for pangolins to be removed from the Pharmacopoeia of the People’s Republic of China, the traditional medicine industry’s handbook and for investment in and promotion of herbal and synthetic alternatives.

Footage captured by an undercover researcher on their mobile phone was released with the study, showing a pangolin hiding from hunters in a hollowed-out tree before it is captured, then beaten with a machete and thrown into a cauldron of boiling water so its scales can be removed. You can watch the video below.

VIEWER ADVISORY: This video depicts graphic violence towards animals that some viewers may find disturbing, triggering, or upsetting.


“Suffocated with smoke, beaten and boiled alive – this is a terrifying ordeal and pangolins clearly suffer immensely,” Neil D’Cruze, Global Wildlife Advisor at World Animal Protection and lead author of the study, said in a statement.

“This footage shines a spotlight on how truly shocking the practice of hunting pangolins truly is. Not only is this a major conservation issue – it’s a devastating animal welfare concern. If we want to protect pangolins from pain and suffering in the countries they come from, we need to tackle the illegal poaching trade.”

This article first appeared on Mongabay.