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.
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 More likely, traders were shipping pangolin species from elsewhere under the cover offered by the province’s outdated law that allows them to be hunted there with a permit.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.