By CHRISTINA LARSON, AP Science Writer
WASHINGTON (AP) — When Chinese police found them in the trunk of a smuggler's car, 33 of the trafficked pangolins — endangered scaly mammals from southern China — were still alive, wrapped in plastic bags soaked with their own urine.
But the fate of the creatures — whose scales are worth nearly their weight in silver on the black market — was not a happy one. Every last pangolin died in government captivity within a few months of the August 2017 seizure.
A pioneering environmental nonprofit in Beijing has launched an investigation, called "counting pangolins," to figure out what happens to such animals recovered from the illegal wildlife trade. Its findings so far highlight discrepancies between environmental laws and outcomes.
China is hardly unique. The number of environmental laws on the books worldwide has increased 38-fold since 1972, according to an exhaustive U.N. Environment report released Thursday. But the political will and capacity to enforce those laws often lags — undermining global efforts to curb issues like wildlife trafficking, air pollution and climate change, the report found.
"The law doesn't self-execute," said Carl Bruch, a study co-author and director of international programs at the Environmental Law Institute in Washington, D.C.
Each of the 33 pangolins transferred to the care of a government-run wildlife rescue center in China's Guangxi province died within three months — according to records obtained by the nonprofit China Biodiversity Conservation and Green Development Foundation and shown to the Associated Press.
What's still unclear is what happened to their bodies.
Pangolins are insect-eating, scaly mammals — playfully described by the International Union for Conservation of Nature as "resembling an artichoke with legs and a tail." Their scales — made of keratin, the same material in human finger nails — are in high demand for Chinese traditional medicine, to purportedly cure arthritis, promote breast-feeding for mothers, and boost male virility, although there is no scientific backing for these beliefs.
The price of pangolin scales in China has risen from $11 per kilogram in the 1990s to $470 in 2014, according to researchers at Beijing Forestry University.
Scientists have designated all eight species of pangolins as being at risk of extinction — four species in Asia, and four in Africa. More than 1 million pangolins were trafficked between 2004 and 2014 — for their scales, meat and blood — with China and Vietnam as the largest markets. In the last two decades, the number of pangolins worldwide has dropped by about 90 percent.
In 2016, the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) adopted a worldwide ban on commercial trade in pangolins, and China later approved that ban. Pangolins are also listed as a protected species in China. While Chinese state-run media have publicized a few high-profile poacher busts, watchdogs say a thriving black market for endangered-animal parts persists.
In November 2017, customs officials in Shenzhen seized 13.1 tons of pangolin scales — reportedly the largest-ever seizure of scales from Africa — according to state media. The penalties offenders face are not always publicized, but in another case involving a smaller shipment of scales, two smugglers received prison sentences of five years, state media said.
"It's significant that China has adopted laws against trade in many endangered species, but the law itself isn't enough to protect a species from extinction," said Jinfeng Zhou, director of the China Biodiversity Conservation and Green Development Foundation.
Zhou wants the government to issue public records tracking all living and dead pangolins seized by authorities — and to offer evidence that contraband, including pangolin scales, is destroyed before it enters black markets.
"We are determined to know what happens to the pangolins," said Sophia Zhang, a researcher at the biodiversity group. After reading news reports about the August 2017 poaching bust, she filed information requests to government agencies and traveled to Guangxi to visit the wildlife rescue center.