When it comes to wildlife crime and trafficking of illegal animal products, elephants and rhinos take the lion's share of media attention. But the little pangolin, an insect-eating mammal that lives in tropical parts of Africa and Asia, is often overlooked, despite being the most heavily-trafficked mammal species.

A new report by Oxford University's Wildlife Conservation Research Unit (WildCRU), the Chinese Public Security Bureau and the Chinese Academy of Sciences details the plight of the pangolin.

CITES (the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora) reports the pangolin as the most trafficked mammal, and most pangolin species are hanging on for survival.

Among the eight pangolin species, six are classified as endangered or near threatened on the IUCN's Red List.

The new report's co-author Chris Newman of WildCRU said that the pangolin's use of a natural defense mechanism makes it more susceptible to trafficking.

"When in jeopardy pangolins roll into a ball and can conveniently be bundled into a sack so that pangolin contraband is easy to transport and often goes unnoticed," he said.

Newman said that current data suggests about 10,000 pangolins are trafficked annually, but that the real extent of the trafficking is likely much greater.

"Notebooks apprehended in 2009 from just one trafficking syndicate revealed that 22,000 pangolins were killed in just 21 months in the Bornean state of Sabah," he said.

Pangoilins are trafficked because their scales are prized in traditional Chinese medicine. About 500 grams of scales can be harvested from a pangolin and sold for up to $350, the researchers said in a statement.

"The numbers of pangolins traded are shocking, and all the more so considering the pharmaceutical pointlessness of the trade, said study co-author David Macdonald, Director of the WildCRU. "This trade is intolerably wasteful."

Since 2010, the researchers found, in China's Yunnan Province alone there were 2,592 kilograms of pangolin scales have been seized. An additional 259 intact pangolins (220 living, 39 dead) have been seized since 2010, the researchers said in a statement.

"Unlike elephant and rhino, where only the valued horn or tusk is traded, often the entire pangolin is shipped, frequently alive, not only leading to appalling cruelty, but also raising another dilemma; what to do with confiscated live pangolins," said study co-author Youbing Zhou of the Chinese Academy of Sciences. "Many impounded outside of China are likely released inappropriately into local forests, or euthanized. Of 326 pangolins placed in the Yunnan Sanctuary of Wildlife since 2008, only 76 Malayan pangolins and 22 Chinese pangolins survived."

Making matters worse, the female pangolin only gestates once per year, so opportunities for reproduction are limited.

The team published their report, "Scaling Up Pangolin Protection in China," in the journal Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment.

1st IUCN SSC Pangolin Specialist Group Conservation Conference, Singapore, June 2013 from Dan Challender on Vimeo.