Johannesburg - The Mai Mai traditional market in downtown Joburg sells all kinds of muti. Cheetah pelts, snake skins and squishy, orange tortoise eggs hang from tin roofs. Hessian sacks spill over with various types of chopped-up herbs and roots.

In one shop, the scales of a little-known, illegally traded species lie on a wrinkled piece of black rubbish bag.

These scales belong to the inkakha, or pangolin, an indigenous mammal resembling a cross between an aardvark and an artichoke. Fast becoming endangered, with six of its eight variants on the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s red list of threatened species, the pangolin is the most heavily trafficked mammal in the world – more than elephants, more even than rhinos.

At least 10 000 are sold on black markets each year, but according to US-based educational non-profit organisation Annamiticus, the number may be as high as 100 000.

Annamiticus is dedicated to stopping the economic exploitation of endangered species. And, according to local experts, the trade in pangolin is growing.

“Over the past 10 years, the number has increased quite dramatically,” said Darren Pietersen, chairman of the African Pangolin Working Group.

“In the last four, five years – I’d say exponentially.”

Pietersen said much of the growth in the pangolin trade had come from increased exports to south-east Asia, where demand for delicacies like pangolin foetus soup has spurred a sharp decline in local populations. But some of South Africa’s pangolins have stayed local, with their scales, feet and intestines sold piecemeal by traditional healers as powerful curatives.

“When you touch (the inkakha), it curls up and protects itself,” said Senzo Qwabe, a herbalist at Mai Mai.

“You burn it and grind it up into a powder, then you cut yourself with a sharp razor and put the powder into your cuts. Wherever you go, it will protect you, like magic.”

Qwabe gets his inkakha scales from Swaziland, where sellers leave the animals out in the cold until they die. Then they strip the creature of its armour and chop off its head and feet.

He sold his scales loose, but another seller’s scales swung from the roof, still attached to their shell of skin.

The inkakha vendors differ widely on the properties of the animal they sell.

“Put a scale on your belt,” one man advised, “and you’ll grow stronger… Grind up its intestines and hang them in your shop, and more customers will come.”

Another said the scales brought her customers good luck. Still others believe the scales stem nosebleeds, raise or lower blood pressure and even cure cancer.

A robber thought the scales could make him bulletproof.

Rynette Coetzee, a project executant at the Endangered Wildlife Trust, said sangomas had complained about shrinking availability.

But nobody knows how many pangolins are left in South Africa.

Exports aside, pangolins face other unnatural enemies, such as electric fences and the thriving demand for illegal bush meat.

But Coetzee maintained the problem extended beyond South Africa.

Eventually, she hopes to make pangolin conservation an Africa-wide effort, because so far, nobody is monitoring the pangolin population.

“There’s a lot of work to be done,” she said.

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The Star