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Saving the Pangolins: Why Biodiversity Matters

On June 27th, the Energy, Environment, and Sustainability summer associates spent the afternoon at the Tyson Research Center, visiting its famous Living Learning Center and attending “Behind the Scenes of ‘Poached’”, a lecture by guest speaker Rachel Nuwer, author of Poached: Inside the Dark World of Wildlife Trafficking. The talk was part of a summer-long seminar series offered every Thursday at the Tyson Center.

‘Inside the Dark World of Wildlife Trafficking’

Rachel Nuwer is a freelance science journalist who writes for the New York Times, BBC Future, and National Geographic among other prestigious science journals. In her first book, she describes her experience and research into the illegal wildlife trade, from small poachers to big consumers. Her investigation takes her across the globe from Vietnam to South Africa, and from pangolins to white rhinoceros, spanning both cultures and species.

By taking away endangered species from their natural environments, poaching threatens biodiversity and entire ecosystems. Poaching targets wild animals, which become worth more money as they become more scarce. This demand for animals can threaten the existence of the species, such as pangolins who are killed by the millions for the supposed-healing properties of their scales. When a species is over-hunted, it becomes at risk of extinction because there are not enough reproducing mates to replenish the rapidly decreasing population.

Pangolins are poached for their scales.
Photo Credit: Save Vietnam Wildlife

Rachel Nuwer contests, however, that punishing poachers does not solve the problem of illegal trade. The root of the problem, says Nuwer, is that the animal is worth more dead than alive. For poachers, illegal hunting is the only way they can make enough money to feed their families. Instead of punishing poachers who hunt due to extreme poverty, Nuwer suggests targeting a different group: the consumers.

The high value of wildlife products such as rhinoceros’ horn is due to high demand. In some traditional eastern medicine practices, animal horn or bone is prescribed to give the consumer the properties of the animal product they take. Eat a tiger bone to strengthen your muscles and snake meat to cure your arthritis, Nuwer illustrates. Yet here too the author of “Poached” suggests a more nuanced view as traditional medicine has deep roots in culture and religious beliefs. Denouncing consumers for purchasing animal horn and scales also infringes upon religious rights. Instead, she points to taking apart criminal organizations supplying the illegal wildlife market and promoting anti-demand campaigns.

An Alarming Scientific Report on Biodiversity

Nuwer’s concerns surrounding our ecosystems’ volatility are echoed by a UN Report on Biodiversity recently released by the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES). Beyond reporting on where the world stands on key international goals regarding biodiversity, it outlines the implications for people, policy options, and likely future scenarios. Similar to Nuwer’s approach, it incorporates a systematic examination of indigenous and local knowledge, issues, and priorities.

The report reveals that since 1990 the average abundance of native species in most major land-based habitats has fallen by at least 20%. In addition, it states that one in four species is at risk of extinction, or about 1 million animal and plant species.

The report warns that this unprecedented decline in biodiversity will have long-lasting implications for our economies, food security, livelihoods, and global quality of life. Biodiversity’s contributions to our public health and wellbeing is underestimated and hardly quantifiable. The negative trends are forecasted to continue to 2050 and beyond in all of the policy scenarios assessed in the report. Experts stress the importance of a transformative change of social, technological, and economic factors including paradigms, goals and values on a global scale to mitigate the effects of what is now known as the sixth mass extinction.

What Can We Do?

As students, staff, and faculty members we must understand our role as consumers to mitigate the anthropogenic effects on biodiversity. We must strive to reduce our consumption of media that downplays the strife of animals, endangered or not. As a society we should adopt a culture change that encourages a greater respect of wild animals.

Rachel Nuwer explained how our patronage of harmful social media content furthers the problem. If you see a post on your Facebook feed in which a tiger is being kept as a pet, you should do your best to discourage that behavior by not sharing. Rather, report or confront the post. While alive as a pet, “the animal is dead to its ecosystem”.

Another way through which individuals can take action is by supporting nonprofits that are making a difference. Examples highlighted by Rachel Nuwer are:


This article was written by Summer Associates Martha Benduski and Adrian Odamtten.