China has removed pangolin scales from its 2020 list of approved ingredients for use in traditional Chinese medicine — a move described by campaigners as a key step towards saving the world’s most trafficked animal.
Pangolins are endangered as they are highly valued for their meat and scales in Asia and Africa, where their scales are often used in traditional medicine. Pangolins have also been discussed as a potential intermediary host for the novel coronavirus.
Comparable in size to a cat, the humble pangolin is a scale-covered insectivore, highly valued in Asia for their scales and meat. The pangolin’s main defense strategy is to curl up into a ball and use its scales for protection — which renders it completely powerless against poachers.
There are eight different pangolin species found in Asia and Africa, three of them already listed as critically endangered by the International Union for Conservation of Nature. The other five are listed as vulnerable or endangered.
Chinese state-run media said that the latest edition of the Chinese Pharmacopoeia, — a government compendium of Chinese and Western medicine, doesn’t include pangolin scales on its list of approved ingredients anymore — a decision explained by the government due to “wild resources exhaustion,” which presumably translates as ‘the pangolin is going extinct if we keep this up’.
Pangolin scales are made of keratin and their use is promoted by traditional Chinese medicine. It is believed that they improve blood circulation and reduce inflammation. Last year alone, more than 130 tons of pangolin related products were seized by the government, which represents up to 400,000 animals.
“These actions of China will have a real impact, these are steps that were critical, that needed to be taken if real conservation was going to happen for these animals,” said in a statement David Olson, director of Conservation at WWF Hong Kong. “Most of the demand for pangolin is coming from traditional Chinese medicine and consumption.”
But others weren’t that optimistic. Sophia Zhang, director of the Pangolin Working Group at the China Biodiversity Conservation and Green Development Foundation, told CNN that while she was pleased by the result, she felt it came “a bit late” as hundreds of thousands of pangolins have already been hunted and killed over the years.
The government’s decision comes only days after China’s State Forestry and Grassland Bureau announced that the pangolin would be upgraded to a “first-level protected wild animal,” the highest possible protection status alongside pandas and tigers. The upgrade means that people who poach, harm, transport or trade pangolins will be subject to harsher penalties.
Under the spotlight
Pangolins have been in the spotlight since the start of the coronavirus pandemic, as studies have suggested they may have been the intermediate host that transmitted the virus to humans. Nevertheless, no positive identification was obtained yet, with experts suggesting a 100% identification will be difficult.
Researchers from Duke University said the virus swapped genes repeatedly with similar strains infecting bats, pangolins and a possible third species prior to jumping to humans. They said it was too soon to blame pangolins, adding people should reduce their contact with wild animals that can transmit new infections.
China’s Congress pushed forward a ban on the consumption of meat from wild animals but there was uncertainty as to what wildlife will still be allowed for use in medicine and the fur and leather industries. More clarity is expected once China finalizes revisions to its wildlife protection law, possibly in late 2020 or sometime in 2021.
Bun a ban is not enough in itself. Conservation experts have warned that in order for the ban to be effective, it must be enforced by the national government and combined with public education.
Overall, the trade in wild animals for consumption in China is estimated to be worth more than $73 billion and experts said that banning it may just push it underground without actually addressing the problem.
“They need better enforcement and greater public awareness to reduce the demand, make sure the public is aware of the risks of consuming these products and aware of the impact on the environment,” Steve Blake, chief representative of Wildaid in Beijing, told CNN. “It takes a bit of time.”