‘Walking Pine Cone’ Anteater Being Smuggled Toward Extinction

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Legend has it that the “walking pine cone” pangolin anteater can cure a bevy of medical woes, and even boost sexual abilities. Of course, “legend” says a lot of things, and this particular theory is wiping out the last species of the pangolin still around.

A burgeoning smuggling trade—the scales of a pangolin can fetch around $340 per pound—into China poaches one of the remaining species from Indonesia, the Philippines, Malaysia and India and uses the pangolin’s meat and scales in everything from home remedies to higher-scale “medical” production. Some believe the scales cure skin diseases, cure rheumatism and help with a wide variety of other medical ailments, all that have other proven helps.

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That theory has put the pangolin at the top of Asia’s list as the most illegally smuggled mammal.

Native in parts of Asia and Africa, the little, slow-breeding (note the irony there) animals do the work of a typical anteater—it isn’t just a clever name—by grabbing ants and other pests. The trade of pangolins is nothing new, having been banned in 2002 by CITES, the international convention on endangered species, but with so few left on earth the price for the anteater that resembles a pine cone continues to skyrocket, putting the last standing species in even more intense peril. Already, the Asian species have been nearly erased and smugglers have set their sites on the remaining African species.

Poor rural hunters use dogs or smoke to clear the nocturnal animals from trees, according to an Associated Press report, and the toothless animal’s only defense is to “roll up in a ball that fits perfectly into a bag,” says Chris Shepherd, a wildlife tracker. To make it worse, stress gives pangolins life-threatening stomach ulcers.

Once caught, entire factories have been set up to kill the anteater and ground the scales for illegal trade to mostly China and sometimes Vietnam and South Korea.

As is the case with a variety of wildlife smuggling, the money behind the illegal smuggling network far outweighs that of the people wanting to protect the pangolin, turning the tables on this scaly hunter.

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Tim Newcomb is a contributor for TIME. Find him on Twitter at @tdnewcomb. You can also continue the discussion on TIME’s Facebook page and on Twitter at @TIME.

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