Pangolins – or scaly anteaters as they are sometimes known – are small, harmless animals covered in overlapping scales. Completely harmless and extremely loveable, they have become the most trafficked animal in the world with thousands of them being illegally brought into China – where else damnit? – every year. Apparently they taste extremely good and the Chinese are convinced that their scales have medicinal value.
Like rhino horn, the scales are made up of keratin like our finger and toenails so that really is a load of nonsense.
I am surprised the British media have not latched on to the story – they are probably too busy with the Royal Biscuit and his shenanigans – but a link has been found by researchers in two separate studies between the deadly coronavirus epidemic sweeping China and the world and the consumption – or contact with – pangolin scales and meat.
The two studies were reported almost simultaneously by a South African publication and Xinhau News Agency in China. The studies in question were carried out by researchers at Baylor College of Medicine in Houston as well as a team at the South China Agricultural University.
Both are the kinds of studies that in a normal world, would have gone virtually unnoticed. But at the moment, this is not a normal world: the coronavirus, if unchecked, has the potential to become a global pandemic.
The news that a global health emergency such as this can be traced back to consumption or handling of the humble pangolin (to bats, actually with pangolins as the vector) is staggering in its implications. And at the same time, a ray of hope for endangered species globally.
Previous outbreaks of disease have been traced to animals – Ebola to bats, SARS to Asian palm civets, MERS to camels. At the same time, most of the threats to endangered wildlife – and African wildlife in particular – come from China and the Far East where wildlife products are prized for their traditional culinary, status, and medicinal uses.
Rhino horn, ivory, abalone, tiger and lion bones and bear bile are just some of the sought-after products. But the pangolin trade is particularly destructive as it takes around nineteen hundred pangolins killed to produce one ton of scales. In 2018, forty-eight tons of scales were seized, the equivalent of ninety one thousand, two hundred pangolins – and a lot more would have slipped through undetected. Pangolin scales are a lot easier to smuggle than rhino horns or elephant tusks.
I must admit that China reacted fast to the news of the pangolin breakthrough: on 10th February, its legislature, the National People’s Congress announced it would update wildlife protection laws to ‘toughen the crackdown on wildlife trafficking.’ Xinhua reported that ‘the supervision, inspection and law enforcement should be strengthened to ensure that wildlife trade markets are banned and closed.’
Let’s hope they stick to their resolve once the coronavirus outbreak has passed.
It seems sad that it takes a global health emergency for the world’s biggest consumer of illegally trafficked wildlife products to take action. On the other hand there may finally be hope for that most endearing of creatures, the amiable pangolin.
Could it be a case of the Pangolin’s revenge?