By Tanisha Heiberg
JOHANNESBURG (Reuters) - The United Nations on Wednesday banned global trade in highly endangered pangolins, a scaly animal with the dubious distinction of being the world's most poached mammal.
Member states of the U.N.'s Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species, known as CITES, voted to place the eight species of pangolin on the convention's "Appendix I," which prohibits any cross-border movement in the animals or their body parts for commercial purposes.
"Giving pangolins full protection under CITES will eliminate any question about legality of trade, making it harder for criminals to traffic them and increasing the consequences for those who do," said Ginette Hemley of conservation group WWF.
Like other illicit wildlife commodity pipelines, such as elephant ivory and rhino horn, Africa is the main source of pangolin supply, while the demand comes from Asia.
Pangolin meat is prized as a delicacy in Asian economies such as Vietnam, while the animal's scales are used in traditional medicines.
Shy and near-sighted, pangolins only venture out from the safety of their burrows or tree-top homes at night to scour for insects. When startled, they curl up into a ball – a technique that is futile against the cable snares set by hunters.
All eight of the world's species of pangolin, which range from 30 to 100 cm (12 to 39 in) length, are threatened with extinction.
Conservationists have said the demand boom stems from declining wild populations in Asia as well as high numbers of Chinese workers in Africa's resource and timber sectors, located in remote regions of the continent's interior.
"Hopefully this will be followed by increased resources and attention being devoted to saving this well armored – but utterly defensive – and wholly unique species," said Jeff Flocken, North American regional director at the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW).
The CITES conference, which began on Saturday and runs until Oct. 5, will also consider competing proposals to loosen or tighten the ivory trade, a bid by Swaziland to sell rhino horn to international buyers, and moves to afford added protection to lions, sharks and rays.
Barbary macaques, the only wild primate north of the Sahara, was also given "Appendix I" protection on Wednesday. The move was done to stem the illegal trade in live juvenile macaques for the international pet market.
Only a few thousand remain in Morocco and Algeria and there is a feral population on the Rock of Gibraltar.
(Writing by Ed Stoddard Editing by Jeremy Gaunt)