In the last decade pangolins have become the most illegally trafficked mammals in the world, with over 300 poached every single day. But until now very little was known about the booming trade as it went on under the radar.
The scaly anteaters (now considered endangered) are prized for their meat, a delicacy in China and Vietnam, and their scales, which are used in Asian medicine.
The team of researchers found that animal traffickers are taking advantage of remote ivory trade routes out of central Africa.
Although the international trade of pangolins - a solitary nocturnal animal - has been banned since 2016, they found that officials are not being successful at stopping the trade because they are targeting the wrong trading routes.
The animals are not being transported via traditional meat trade chains, but instead across remote forest borders normally used by ivory traders.
The team visited rural communities across Gabon (one of the trading hotspots) and spoke with local communities who are permitted to consume the animals for food.
Dr Katharine Abernethy, of the Faculty of Natural Sciences, who led the work, said: “Local subsistence hunters are probably not the primary suppliers - this is likely to be criminal hunting organisations, possibly those who are also trading in ivory in the region, as the demand markets are similar.”
According to the study, most of the demand stems from Asian workers stationed on the continent for major logging, oil exploration and agro-industry projects.
Daniel Ingram, who was involved in the research whilst at the University of Sussex, said: “Every new finding adds very concerning new details about this trade.
“The link between Asian industrial workers working on major projects in Africa and requests for pangolins is worrying, and warrants further investigation.”
As a result the price for giant pangolins has risen at more than 45 times the rate of inflation between 2002 and 2014. Seeing prices soar from £8.50 for a kilogram of scales in the 1990s to around £360 today.
Dr Abernethy said: “We recommend adjusting conservation policies and actions to impede further development of illegal trade within and from Gabon.”
The reason pangolins are still widely unknown in the UK is because they seldom survive in captivity. Only six zoos in the world - one in Europe - have any.