Porcupines have long been captured and sold in the wildlife trade. Some people eat them, and their quills and hairs are used in clothing and other decorative items. Porcupines also produce stone-like collections of undigested plants in their guts called bezoars. Bezoars from several species, including cows, goats, oxen, and porcupines are used in traditional and folk medicine, particularly in East and Southeast Asian countries.
One of the dark sides of social media and other internet sites is that they have become virtual wildlife markets, where hunters can easily sell their wares to buyers around the world. In a new study published in Global Ecology and Conservation, scientists from Australia's University of Adelaide and the UK's Oxford Brookes University searched 11 online social media and retail sites in Indonesia, Malaysia, and Singapore — including popular platforms like Instagram, Alibaba, and Lazada — for porcupine bezoars for sale. Over a three-month study period, they found 121 listings marketing nearly 450 porcupine bezoars. Over a third of them were posted on Instagram, and the bezoars were selling for an average of $152 USD per gram.
These findings are concerning. Porcupines must be killed to retrieve the bezoars, and relatively few porcupines have them (the actual incidence rate, however, is unknown). This means that, if every listing the researchers found was real, far more than 450 porcupines had been killed for their bezoars over a relatively short amount of time.
The International Union for the Conservation of Nature, which maintains a list of which species are vulnerable and endangered, currently lists all Asian porcupine species except for the Philippine porcupine as "least concern," meaning that, as far as conservationists know, the animals are still common. But with rapid deforestation and the hunting of these animals for food and the wildlife trade, this may not be true for long. Stronger international and domestic trade laws in Southeast Asian countries would be a good first step toward protecting porcupines, along with all of the animals that share their habitats.