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I Accidentally Ate the World's Most Illegally Trafficked Animal

If you’re in the market for a truly awful meal sprinkled with guilt and served with a side of sizzling bad karma, as I unfortunately experienced, then pangolin meat is for you. See you in hell.

Anna Hirtenstein

I went to the market by the side of the highway one morning with a new, local friend. He picked out an unfamiliar little beast from among the carcasses. "You're going to love this," he assured me.

I'm a journalist on assignment in Equatorial Guinea in Central West Africa, and I had no idea what I was looking at. It was a weird combination of thin fur, scales, and a fat curly tail a bit like an iguana.

The seller picked it up by its tail and banged it sharply against the table, knocking it out. Its little head lolled from side to side, limbs hanging limply. Then he set it on fire. "It's to burn off the hair," my friend explained.

I watched, slightly shocked, as its skin blackened and its soul departed. Then he dunked the flaming animal into a pail of brownish water, stuck it in a plastic bag, and handed it to us with a smile. "Cuarenta mil francos."

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Forty thousand Central African CFA francs, about US$66. Quite an expensive meal, particularly for West Africa.

We went back to my friend's place and made a stew with onions, tomatoes, and bell peppers with some of our other friends. I had to look away as he hacked the dead creature into small pieces and tipped them into the pot. A strange smell permeated the kitchen as it cooked.

Two hours later, it was pronounced ready. "Here you go, your first taste of pangolin!" my friend said as he handed me a plate.

Oh shit.

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The pangolin is the most trafficked animal in the world, estimated to make up about 20 percent of the wildlife black market. There are eight different species, all which are on the International Union for the Conservation of Nature's Red List for Threatened Species. Four live in Asia, four in Africa.

The meat is considered to be a delicacy in China and other countries in Southeast Asia. Traditional medicine men roast and crush the scales into powder to use as an ingredient in stomach and liver tonics. Its blood is said to have healing powers. Some also use pangolin skins as clothing, and their fetuses in medicinal remedies.

I can personally vouch for the fact that the pangolin is neither magical nor very tasty. The thing's most powerful quality appears to be its bizarre odor, which pungently stunk up the house. My first hesitant nibble revealed that it also permeated the general flavor of the animal.

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Pangolin meat is dark, with a sticky, stringy texture. We ate it with rice. The scales were just barely edible, with a crunch like a human fingernail. My friend asked if we mind if he took the head. I did not mind. He popped it in his mouth and sucked happily on the skull.

Prior to this incident, I didn't even know that pangolins existed, let alone about the problems surrounding their illegal trade. My friend just thinks of it as bushmeat—he and other locals hunt and eat pretty much anything they can from the jungle here, even monkeys. Pangolins are hunted for bushmeat in West Africa, just like any other jungle-dweller, and their high price tag encourages villagers to set traps especially for these little creatures. Their primary defense method is to curl up into a ball and rely on their hard scales as protection, rendering them easily captured by humans.

A report in 2014 by journal Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment estimated that about 10,000 intact pangolins are confiscated per year by authorities, mostly in Asia. Their scales are currently worth about US$600 per kilo, and other body parts can retail for US$1,000.

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The rampant and illegal pangolin trade is often overshadowed by the poaching of more charismatic "Big Five" animals, such as elephants and rhinos. There are very few people in the world running marathons and setting up foundations to save the pangolins, but there are many others with an appetite for the creatures. The Asian varieties of pangolins are considered to be endangered and critically endangered, while the African ones are classified as vulnerable to extinction.

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Pangolins subsist mostly on ants and termites, catching them with tongues that can stretch longer than the length of their bodies. Scientists are additionally concerned about the ecosystems of the tropical forests, as the wood-munching insect populations are bound to be on the rise with the disappearance of a predator.

"They're getting hunted illegally all the time in Africa, both for bush meat and to export to Asia," said Melanie Croce, director of the Bioko Biodiversity Protection Program's wildlife center in Equatorial Guinea. "We have an initiative to discourage poaching by helping the villagers establish alternative and sustainable livelihoods such as jewelry-making and working as beach patrols. But unfortunately it is still going on. A colleague of mine recently observed some Equatoguineans holding a live pangolin over a fire."

There are laws against hunting and trapping in scientific reserves in Equatorial Guinea, but they are seldom enforced. The poaching continues as long as the animal is considered valuable.

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If you're in the market for a truly awful meal sprinkled with guilt and served with a side of sizzling bad karma, as I unfortunately experienced, then pangolin meat is for you.

See you in hell.

This article originally appeared on MUNCHIES in April 2015.