Operation Pangolin launches to save world’s most trafficked wild mammal

17 February 2023

Dr Dan Challender examining pangolin burrows in China Dr Dan Challender low
Researchers and conservationists are embarking on a bold initiative to save the world’s most trafficked wild mammal — the pangolin.

Throughout history, pangolins have been sustainably harvested for their scales (used in Traditional Medicine in parts of Africa and Asia) and for their meat. In recent decades, however, overexploitation has exploded despite national and international legal protections afforded to the species. With a likely large proportion of the illegal trade of their scales and meat going undetected, very little is known about the supply chains through which pangolins are trafficked. At least 250,000 are thought to be taken from African and Asian forests every year for consumers in China, Vietnam, and even western Europe and the United States. This makes pangolins the most illegally traded wild mammals on the planet and all eight species are now being threatened with extinction.

Operation Pangolin will help develop pangolin-specific monitoring methods and develop interventions to prevent illegal offtake and trafficking of the species - the highest conservation priority for these mammals. Operation Pangolin will generate much-needed data to inform conservation strategies in Central Africa, including wildlife crime prevention. Throughout the project, the research team will work in partnership with local conservation stakeholders, including indigenous peoples, local communities, and government agencies.

“In the last decade pangolin populations in Central Africa have been under increasing pressure from offtake for local use and international trafficking of their scales,” said Dr Dan Challender, an interdisciplinary Conservation Scientist on the Oxford Martin Programme on Wildlife Trade, who has been involved in pangolin research and conservation for 15 years.


Dr Dan Challender holds a Sunda pangolin (Manis javanica)

“This project has the potential to transform pangolin conservation, first in key locations in Central Africa, and then extending into parts of Asia. By taking an interdisciplinary approach and using novel technology and artificial intelligence methods, the project will give pangolin populations in these regions the best chance of survival.”

There are four core pillars to the project:

1) monitoring of pangolin populations, including developing and deploying new technologies to do this;

2) understanding the social-ecological systems in which pangolins are harvested, used, and traded in key areas in Central Africa to inform locally-led sustainable conservation solutions;

3) using insights from conservation criminology to prevent the illegal harvesting and trafficking of pangolins;

4) using artificial intelligence and machine learning approaches to unite diverse data streams to prevent wildlife crime involving pangolins, including through predictive approaches.

The researchers will work with local conservation stakeholders, including indigenous peoples, local communities, and government agencies to deploy pangolin monitoring programs, implement conservation interventions, and develop predictive tools for addressing wildlife crime.

The project has launched in Cameroon and Gabon, Central Africa, with the support of a $4 million grant from the Paul G. Allen Family Foundation, with plans to expand into Nigeria soon. With further funding, the team hope to expand their efforts into Asia, the only other continent with native pangolin populations.

The collaborative research team includes:

  • Matthew H. Shirley from Florida International University, focusing on ecological monitoring;
  • Alasdair Davies from the Arribada Initiative, focusing on technological innovation;
  • Dan Challender from the University of Oxford, focusing on trade and policy;
  • Meredith Gore from the University of Maryland, focusing on conservation criminology;
  • Bistra Dilkina from the University of Southern California, focusing on data coalescence and artificial intelligence.

Led by Dan Challender, the University of Oxford will focus on the social component of the project. This will conduct research in and around key protected areas with pangolins in Cameroon to understand the social-ecological systems in which pangolins are harvested, used, and trafficked. This will involve working with key stakeholders to collectively identify the conditions that result in the illegal harvest and trade of pangolins. This information will be used to inform context-specific conservation interventions with local actors (including indigenous peoples and local communities) to ensure that any future use and/or trade of pangolins is legal and not unsustainable.

“Accurate, actionable data is the foundation of effective conservation efforts,” said Gabe Miller, director of technology on behalf of the Paul G. Allen Family Foundation. “Operation Pangolin will provide a blueprint for how conservationists can turn data into solutions that address important issues like wildlife trafficking and the biodiversity crisis head on.”