The Pangolin Pandemic

If there is a morality tale to be found in this coronavirus pandemic it is surely the story of the exploitation of the pangolin. There is strong evidence that the COVID-19 virus may have been transferred to humans from a pangolin in the Wuhan “wet market” in China (although the alternative route may have been from a bat).

About the pangolin

Pangolins are unique amongst mammals in having scales. They are able to quickly roll themselves up into a tight ball when threatened. They eat ants and termites using a long, sticky tongue. Although similar to anteaters and aardvarks they are more closely related to cats and dogs.

There are eight species of pangolins. Four are found is Asia—the Chinese, Sunda, Indian, and Philippine pangolins. The other four species from Africa—the ground pangolin, giant pangolin, white-bellied, and black-bellied. The International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) has declared all eight species as “threatened with extinction” since 2014.

In 2016, the 186 countries party to the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES), the treaty that regulates the international wildlife trade, voted to ban commercial trade in pangolins (China is a member of CITES).

How the pangolin got its name

The name pangolin was originally used in 1774 to describe the scaly, toothless, ant-eating mammal of Java (the Philippine Pangolin). The word comes from the Malay word peng-goling meaning “rolling over” from the pangolin’s habit of curling into a ball. In Cantonese the name for pangolins means “the animal that digs through the mountain” or “Chun-shua-cap” which translates to “scaly hill-borer”. In Chinese legend pangolins travel around the world underground.

Why the pangolins are in demand

The pangolins’ scales are pulverised for use in archaic Chinese medicine and their meat is considered a delicacy among Chinese and Vietnamese.

The scales are used to supposedly cure ailments ranging from cancer to arthritis after being dried and ground into powder. Like rhino horn they are made up of keratin (the material in our fingernails and hair) and provide no proven medicinal value.

Illegal trade in pangolins

The pangolin is the most trafficked animal on the planet. The Asian species are the primary target of poachers and traffickers but as they have got rarer smugglers have turned to African pangolins. All species are declining in numbers because of illegal trade. Tens of thousands of them are poached and killed every year—the estimate is 300 pangolins every day on average.

Last year, in April 2019, Singapore authorities made two seizures of a record-breaking total of 25.6 tonnes of pangolin scales, worth an estimated US$75 million. The scales in these seizures were said to have come from between 38,000 and 72,000 pangolins (depending on the reports). Earlier in the year, Hong Kong had seized an eight-tonne shipment estimated to be from 13,000 pangolins.

The wrath of the pangolin

So, the morality tale manifests as if we had heeded the plight of the pangolin we would not have brought this contagion upon ourselves. If the Chinese authorities had been rigorous in policing the illegal trade of these endangered species we would have prevented the start of this pandemic.

However, looking at this more scientifically and leaving the biblical wrath aside. The consumption of exotic animal meat is very likely to create disease particularly if not cooked properly or eaten raw. There is a high risk that the consumer of the meat will get exposed to new parasites and pathogens that humans do not have defences against. COVID-19 may well be so potent because we haven’t been exposed to it before.

Experts are advising that the humans must reduce this close exposure to wildlife by banning “wet markets” and trade in wildlife.

Save Pangolins

If you want to help save the pangolin visit the Save Pangolins website.