China Seizes Massive Amount of Pangolin Scales in Biggest-Ever Smuggling Case
By Shreya Dasgupta
Pangolin—the world's most trafficked mammal—continues to be killed in huge numbers.
On Wednesday, Chinese customs officials announced that they had seized more than three metric tons (3,000 kilograms or 6,600 pounds) of pangolin scales in Shanghai. This is the country's largest-ever smuggling case involving pangolin parts, officials reportedly said.
Customs officials discovered the massive amount of scales on Dec. 10, 2016. The scales had been packed in 101 bags concealed within a timber consignment imported from Africa. Some 5,000 to 7,500 wild pangolins are estimated to have been killed for these scales, officials told ShanghaiDaily.com.
Three people have been arrested so far, and the case is still under investigation according to South China Morning Post.
Customs finds 3 tons of pangolin scales https://t.co/7NvHCd1nMf— Shanghai Daily (@Shanghai Daily)1482898664.0
Pangolins use their scaly armor to protect themselves. Unfortunately, these protective scales have become the very reason for their population collapse.
Today, eight species of pangolins survive, four each in Asia and Africa. All four Asian species are on the verge of extinction, while the African species are moving towards a similar fate, thanks to rising demand for pangolin meat and scales in China.
Although pangolin scales are made of keratin, just like human fingernails and rhino horns, people (incorrectly) believe that they contain medicinal properties. Traders claim that pangolin scales can promote menstruation and lactation, and treat rheumatism and arthritis. But these claims remain unproven. Consumption of pangolins has also become a status symbol as supply becomes scarce and demand increases.
The three ton seizure is just the tip of an iceberg, officials say.
According to a new study published in Conservation Letters, more than 21,000 kilograms (~46,000 pounds) of scales and 23,109 individual pangolins were recorded in a total of 206 seizure reports between January 2008 and March 2016. This is equivalent to nearly 66,000 individuals, the researchers estimate.
Most seizures were made at three Chinese cities—Fangchenggang, Kunming and Guangzhou. This suggests that "Interventions in these cities could have a disproportionately strong impact on the entire illegal pangolin trade network," the authors write in the paper.
Vietnam appears to be the major source country for illegal pangolins seized in China, the study found, with Fangchenggang the major entry point. Myanmar, too, serves as an important source of pangolins and is fast emerging as a major transit hub for smuggled pangolins and their parts to meet China's demands.
Tree pangolin (Manis tricuspis) in central Democratic Republic of the Congo.Valerius Tygart / Wikimedia Commons
All eight species were recently up-listed to Appendix I of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES). This bans international trade in these animals and represents the highest level of protection available under international law.
But disrupting the illegal pangolin trade will require "significant cooperation and coordination between China's dispersed law enforcement parties: customs in screening cargo, urban administrative police in inspecting of markets, traffic police in checking private cars, People's Armed Police and forestry police in monitoring borders and remote areas," the researchers write.
Reposted with permission from our media associate Mongabay.
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By Aaron W Hunter
A chance discovery of a beautifully preserved fossil in the desert landscape of Morocco has solved one of the great mysteries of biology and paleontology: how starfish evolved their arms.
The Pompeii of palaeontology. Aaron Hunter, Author provided<h2></h2><p>Although starfish might appear very robust animals, they are typically made up of lots of hard parts attached by ligaments and soft tissue which, upon death, quickly degrade. This means we rely on places like the Fezouata formations to provide snapshots of their evolution.</p><p>The starfish fossil record is patchy, especially at the critical time when many of these animal groups first appeared. Sorting out how each of the various types of ancient starfish relate to each other is like putting a puzzle together when many of the parts are missing.</p><h2>The Oldest Starfish</h2><p><em><a href="https://www.biorxiv.org/content/10.1101/216101v1.full.pdf" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Cantabrigiaster</a></em> is the most primitive starfish-like animal to be discovered in the fossil record. It was discovered in 2003, but it has taken over 17 years to work out its true significance.</p><p>What makes <em>Cantabrigiaster</em> unique is that it lacks almost all the characteristics we find in brittle stars and starfish.</p><p>Starfish and brittle stars belong to the family Asterozoa. Their ancestors, the Somasteroids were especially fragile - before <em>Cantabrigiaster</em> we only had a handful of specimens. The celebrated Moroccan paleontologist Mohamed <a href="https://doi.org/10.1016/j.palaeo.2016.06.041" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Ben Moula</a> and his local team was instrumental in discovering <a href="https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S0031018216302334?via%3Dihub" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">these amazing fossils</a> near the town of Zagora, in Morocco.</p><h2>The Breakthrough</h2><p>Our breakthrough moment came when I compared the arms of <em>Cantabrigiaster</em> with those of modern sea lilles, filter feeders with long feathery arms that tend to be attached to the sea floor by a stem or stalk.</p><p>The striking similarity between these modern filter feeders and the ancient starfish led our team from the University of Cambridge and Harvard University to create a new analysis. We applied a biological model to the features of all the current early Asterozoa fossils in existence, along with a sample of their closest relatives.</p>
Cantabrigiaster is the most primitive starfish-like animal to be discovered in the fossil record. Aaron Hunter, Author provided<p>Our results demonstrate <em>Cantabrigiaster</em> is the most primitive of all the Asterozoa, and most likely evolved from ancient animals called crinoids that lived 250 million years before dinosaurs. The five arms of starfish are a relic left over from these ancestors. In the case of <em>Cantabrigiaster</em>, and its starfish descendants, it evolved by flipping upside-down so its arms are face down on the sediment to feed.</p><p>Although we sampled a relatively small numbers of those ancestors, one of the unexpected outcomes was it provided an idea of how they could be related to each other. Paleontologists studying echinoderms are often lost in detail as all the different groups are so radically different from each other, so it is hard to tell which evolved first.</p>
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