Hang­ing in the bal­ance

The re­puted health ben­e­fits of the scales and other body parts of pan­golins are a ma­jor fac­tor in a trade that is push­ing them to the brink of ex­tinc­tion.

Action Asia - - ENVIRONMENT - By Steve White

WHAT IS THE MOST TRAF­FICKED MAM­MAL on Earth? No, not ele­phants. Not rhi­nos or tigers ei­ther. Ac­cord­ing to the In­ter­na­tional Union for Con­ser­va­tion of Na­ture (IUCN), the an­swer is the hum­ble pan­golin, a scaly in­sect-eater once found across Asia and Africa. The il­le­gal wildlife trade is en­dan­ger­ing some of our most iconic an­i­mals: to the land an­i­mals men­tioned above you can add ocean species such as sharks too. Much of the de­mand is com­ing from Asia – China and Viet­nam in par­tic­u­lar – fu­elled by ris­ing af­flu­ence that gives con­sumers dis­cre­tionary in­come to spend on traditional forms of medicine and on ex­otic foods. The pan­golin is so prized be­cause of its scales. Made of keratin, just like our fin­ger­nails, they are the an­i­mal’s main de­fence: when threat­ened, it curls up, head tucked out of harm’s way. The sense of in­vul­ner­a­bil­ity this con­fers has en­cour­aged the nou­veau riche of Asia to buy whole pan­golins or parts thereof – even sim­ply the blood – for con­sump­tion. Prices run to more than US$3,000/ kg for their scales, with meat priced around Us$300/kg. The de­mand is not all as­so­ci­ated with Asia. In Africa too, pan­golins have long been eaten for the sup­posed pro­tec­tion their meat might pass

on. How­ever, given their high value, it seems likely that sell­ing the an­i­mal on is now pre­ferred to lo­cal con­sump­tion. This is do­ing se­vere dam­age to wild pop­u­la­tions. IUCN fig­ures sug­gest around one mil­lion pan­golins were traf­ficked in the decade to 2014. All eight species – four found in Africa and four in Asia – are on the IUCN’S Red List, an in­ter­na­tion­ally ac­cepted data­base of en­dan­ger­ment. Two of the Asian species are listed as En­dan­gered and two as Crit­i­cally En­dan­gered. In­deed, it is thought that the pan­golin is now ex­tinct in cer­tain parts of its for­mer Asian range. Reg­u­lar re­ports of seizures across Asia sug­gest that the trade re­mains wide­spread in the re­gion, sug­gest­ing that the tar­get species are more likely to be African in ori­gin now. For ex­am­ple, in July 2017, 8,000kg of scales were seized in Sabah. Worth RM100M (US$24.5M), the ship­ment rep­re­sented around 16,000 an­i­mals. Given the an­i­mal’s scar­ity in Bor­neo, it is thought un­likely that all were cap­tured in Sabah. More likely, traders were ship­ping pan­golin species from else­where un­der the cover of­fered by the prov­ince’s out­dated law that al­lows them to be hunted there with a per­mit. The pro­vin­cial gov­ern­ment is now said to be fast-track­ing an or­di­nance that will give pan­golins com­plete pro­tec­tion. Just two months ear­lier, au­thor­i­ties in Hong Kong in­ter­cepted a 7,000kg ship­ment of scales. As with most an­i­mal traf­fick­ing, the city is a key link be­tween China and the rest of the world. Pan­golins are found in Hong Kong but are in­creas­ingly rare. Hong Kong-born model, ac­tress and now ac­tivist, Sharon Kwok, de­scribes the pan­golin as “os­ten­ta­tious, ‘show-off ’ food” and talks of her own mother’s past in­ter­est in the sup­posed ben­e­fits of their body parts. “We are in a race against time to ed­u­cate the younger gen­er­a­tion in China,” she says. In Septem­ber 2016 she travel led to Jo­han­nes­burg to lobby on be­half of pan­golins at the Con­fer­ence of the Par­ties (COP17), an an­nual meet­ing of sig­na­to­ries to the Con­ven­tion on In­ter­na­tional Trade in En­dan­gered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES). In an im­por­tant step forward, all eight species were moved to CITES Ap­pen­dix I which pro­hibits the in­ter­na­tional trade of wild spec­i­mens and their body parts. This was key as pre­vi­ously some species were listed in Ap­pen­dix II that per­mits a level of trade that doesn’t risk over-util­i­sa­tion of the re­source. As many ship­ments are of bones or scales alone, there was plenty of op­por­tu­nity for them to be al­lowed through by hard-pressed cus­toms staff ill-equipped to judge quickly and ac­cu­rately which species they were han­dling. “We were very prepared,” says Kwok of the ef­fort, “We got all eight species on the en­dan­gered list. There’s no grey area any­more.” More re­cently an­other ac­tor, Jackie Chan, brought his in­flu­ence to bear on young and old alike, with a video called ‘Kung Fu Pan­golin’ which shows him teach­ing the cute an­i­mals how to fight, not sim­ply curl up and play dead. Prac­ti­tion­ers of Traditional Chi­nese Medicine (TCM) are not tak­ing this ly­ing down. In Septem­ber 2017, Wang Wei­quan of the Chi­nese Medicine As­so­ci­a­tion told The Econ­o­mist that smug­gling con­tin­ues be­cause do­mes­tic pan­golin farms are not big enough. Wen Jian­min of the Wengjiang TCM hos­pi­tal was also quoted as say­ing that the ban on the use of some an­i­mals had al­ready led to the dis­ap­pear­ance of some fa­mous traditional reme­dies: “If we don’t protect TCM bet­ter, Chi­nese medicine will ex­ist only in name,” he said. The size of China’s pan­golin farm­ing in­dus­try is un­known but it is widely ob­served that the an­i­mals are very picky eaters and don’t do well in cap­tiv­ity. Of­fi­cially the pan­golin is un­der Grade II Na­tional Pro­tec­tion on the Main­land, pro­hibit­ing their con­sump­tion, but per­mit­ting medic­i­nal use of their scales. This all sug­gests the farms would likely have a rapid turnover. For now the hum­ble pan­golin faces an un­cer­tain fu­ture across its range. But per­haps a sug­ges­tion made on the Huff­in­g­ton Post in Au­gust 2017 is worth con­sid­er­a­tion. Point­ing out that the gi­ant panda has been moved from IUCN’S list of species that are ‘En­dan­gered’ to be­ing merely ‘Vul­ner­a­ble’, they sug­gested that it’s time for WWF to change their logo from one lov­able mam­mal to an­other.

SCALE OF THE PROB­LEM Far from pro­tect­ing the pan­golin, its scales – made of the same sub­stance as our own fin­ger­nails – is fu­elling a huge trade for their sup­posed medic­i­nal ben­e­fits.

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