This post belongs to a series written by students in the Conservation Biology course BSC4052 at the University of South Florida. This course provides an overview of major themes in conservation practice and related applied problems in biology, including: population ecology in the context of conservation, patterns of diversity, valuing diversity, threats to diversity, management actions and strategies for preserving diversity.
Kathryn Vanhooser is a current sophomore at the University of South Florida in Tampa. Having grown up in Stuart, Florida, where blue-green algae blooms have plagued local estuaries for years, she is currently majoring in Environmental Biology and minoring in Creative Writing. Her goal is to one day work in conservation.
Article: Heinrich S, Ross JV, Cassey P. Of cowboys, fish, and pangolins: US trade in exotic leather. Conservation Science and Practice. 2019;1:e75. https://doi.org/10.1111/csp2.75
Introducing the Exotic Leather
Scaled animals lead to interesting leather products, which is why pangolins and arapaima are so heavily trafficked. Pangolins in particular are one of the world’s most heavily trafficked mammals, and it primarily comes down to their characteristic scales and the intricate leather created from them1. The medium-sized mammal, native to Asia and Africa2, is covered in scales made of keratin1, the same material that makes up our fingernails and toenails. Arapaima are large fish native to the Amazon basin and can grow up to 10 ft long and weigh up to 400 lbs3. Together, the two have very similar leather patterns distinctive from others, leading to strong demand.
No One Will Know the Difference
Pangolins historically have been the more “common” exotic choice for leather due to the particular pattern of their skin and scales. With a decrease in pangolin populations and increased legislation prohibiting their trade, a rise in the trade of arapaima leather has increased to fill the growing gap. The high demand for these two species may land them on the endangered species list, or even send them into an extinction vortex.
An “extinction vortex” occurs when a species has such a low population size that it inevitably continues to decline due to increased cases of inbreeding and a higher likelihood of losing genetic diversity to dangerous chance events, such as typhoons and wildfires4. Adding to this “vortex” is the human want for rare items, meaning the price for species increases the rarer they become, literally putting a price on rarity5. This has been the case for pangolins as their populations have declined in recent decades.
Scaling the Numbers
Market demand for exotic leather, while only pertaining to a select group of people, is still dangerous for animals whose numbers are already relatively low. Heinrich’s study monitored online sales of exotic pangolin and arapaima leathers from the years 1999 to 2015 and compared LEMIS (Law Enforcement Management System) data with eBay sales to better understand trends in sales.
During the time period of Heinrich’s study, pangolin leather trade amounted to 163 documented incidents, involving an estimated 21,411 pangolins. There were 130 documented arapaima trade incidents, involving an estimated 5,524 fish. Trade incidents can include the catching of poachers in possession of illegal leathers or animals, and many of these black market attempts go unnoticed. According to Heinrich’s team’s findings, the cost of items varied substantially, yet reached high prices. The most expensive item found on eBay for each animal was a pangolin leather handbag, priced at $12,895 and a pair of arapaima leather boots, priced at $1,800. Heinrich’s team found that, over the past decade, pangolin leather has been sold primarily as used products, while arapaima leather has been sold as new or unused. This, combined with the decrease in pangolin trade in 2000 and increase in arapaima trade in 2011, points to arapaima taking the place of pangolin on the exotic trade market, as Heinrich suggests.
Not everyone can afford the rarer items, so the cheaper alternative of arapaima leather has flooded the market. The problem with arapaima leather is that the increased demand for their scales also increases unsustainable fishing techniques which has led to a drastic decrease in arapaima numbers. Their numbers could already be low enough to warrant placement on the endangered species list, but there are not enough data on long-term population trends to make a clear assessment, something Heinrich’s team suggests needs immediate action in fixing.
These Boots are Unsustainable
Leather trade in the US is a relatively limited problem in terms of global conservation, but there is enough demand to encourage the sale of endangered species such as pangolins and arapaima. While there is a chance that pangolin populations will head toward an extinction vortex and continued declines, the more pressing danger at the moment surrounds the arapaima. Their large range and reclusive behavior makes it difficult to track them and determine just how many exist in the wild1. All in all, the story of pangolins and arapaima is once again a warning of the dangers of human demand for the exotic and its precarious relationship with conservation efforts. One thing everyone can do is utilize sustainably-sourced goods to prevent the decline of species around the world.
- Heinrich S, Ross JV, Cassey P. Of cowboys, fish, and pangolins: US trade in exotic leather. Conservation Science and Practice. 2019;1:e75. https://doi.org/10.1111/csp2.75
- Bradford A. 2016, December 14. Facts About Pangolins. Live Science. Available from https://www.livescience.com/57200-facts-about-pangolins.html (accessed April 16, 2020).
- Arapaima. 2018, December 27. Available from https://nationalzoo.si.edu/animals/arapaima (accessed February 20, 2020).
- Swaminathan N. 2006, November 30. “Extinction Vortex” Could Result from Endangered Species Alerts. Scientific American. Available from https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/extinction-vortex-could-r/ (accessed February 20, 2020)
- Gross L. 2006. A Human Taste for Rarity Spells Disaster for Endangered Species. PLoS Biology. Available from DOI: 10.1371/journal.pbio.0040439 (accessed April 16, 2020).