Recent studies involving Australia's spiny anteater, aka the echidna, may actually help conservationists to stem the tide of illegal pangolin trafficking through keratin research. If you're wondering how that works, keritan (think fingernails) holds clues to our diets, which can help pinpoint what part of the world we come from.
If scientists can determine where an animal was most likely taken from, conservationists and law enforcement can better deter traffickers planning to take them.
The little echidna came under scrutiny last year by ecologists at Sydney's Taronga Zoo and the University of New South Wales' Centre for Ecosystem Science. Using stable isotope analysis to study the keratin in the creatures' quills, the researchers could examine the chemical records hidden within. The thinking is, if they can use this kind of technology with echidnas, why not pangolins?
Resembling an armadillo with artichoke plating made of keratin, the Pangolin is one of the most sought-after and trafficked mammals on the planet. As a matter of fact, all eight species of the animals are now listed as threatened, with four listed as vulnerable, two listed as endangered, and two listed as critically endangered on the International Union for Conservation of Nature Red List of Threatened Species.
The toothless insectivores are said to be fairly docile and use their hardened scales as a defense mechanism when threatened by rolling up into a ball and tucking their long snouts under their tails. They are hunted for both their meat and scales, especially in Asia, where they are found, along with parts of Africa. Just this week trafficking routes were uncovered in western Africa.
Michelle Shaw, an animal nutritionist with the Taronga Zoo, will be traveling to Vietnam later this year to employ the same keratin analysis previously used on enchidna quills on pangolin scales to try to determine where illegal shipments are originating from.
"Basically, we need to find out where these animals are coming from," Shaw stated. "We're trying to give the people monitoring the international trade tools that will help them to catch these traffickers."
Conservative estimates reveal that more than 1 million pangolins have been captured and taken from the wild in the past decade alone. Most of this is for Asian markets where it is believed their scales hold medicinal powers, although like rhino horns and other animal parts there has never been a shred of evidence to support any of these claims.
As technology advances, the conservation of animals will hopefully continue to increase and creatures like these and others can be saved for future generations.