Pangolins receive surprising lifeline with new protections in China

The highly trafficked mammal has been hunted for years and is now stigmatized for unproven Covid-19 connections.

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This Cape pangolin was rescued from poachers in Mozambique and released back into the wild. Conservationists hope new pangolin protections in China and the omission of pangolin scales from the country’s list of approved traditional medicines will help slow the decline of all eight species of these endangered animals.

China has granted a reprieve to the world’s most trafficked nonhuman mammal—the pangolin. The country’s 2020 list of approved traditional medicines does not include pangolin scales, as it has for decades. The scales have long been sold in traditional pharmacies in China as an ingredient in legally allowed medications to treat everything from lactation problems to arthritis.

Medicinal use of the scales has pushed the world’s pangolin species—four in
Asia and four in Africa—toward extinction. Tens of thousands of the animals, which resemble scaly anteaters, are killed annually for their meat—considered a luxury food in China and Vietnam—as well as their scales, curved disks of keratin, the same substance that's in human fingernails.

“This is the single greatest measure that could be taken to save the pangolins,” says Peter Knights, CEO of the environmental nonprofit WildAid, an organization that focuses on reducing demand for wildlife products. “This sends a clear message that there are alternatives in traditional Chinese medicine and so you don’t need to use pangolins,” he says.

The revelation that scales are no longer an approved medicinal comes days after China announced that it was upgrading pangolins’ standing under the country’s wildlife protection law. Pangolins now are ranked Class 1—the status given to the nation’s beloved panda—which prohibits almost all domestic trade and use of the animals.

China did not officially unveil its 2020 pharmacopeia or release a statement about the omission of pangolins. Instead, the development was first reported by China’s Health Times newspaper.

“China will often intentionally let an announcement like this come out through the press rather than a formal announcement,” says Paul Thomson, executive director and cofounder of the San Francisco-based group Save Pangolins. He says he’s “cautiously optimistic” about the unexpected news.

Chinese officials did not respond to National Geographic’s request for comment by publication time.

Questions remain about what China will do with its stockpiles of pangolin scales. In the past, companies have been able to draw on stockpiles even after products have been banned, creating enough ambiguity that some commercial domestic trade in those products would persist. For example, a 2006 regulation allowed companies to sell out existing leopard bone inventory, without disclosing how much they had in stock, says Chris Hamley, a pangolin expert at the London-based Environment Investigation Agency.

International trade in pangolins or their scales has been prohibited since 2017 under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora, the global treaty that regulates international wildlife trade.

Any formal announcements from China’s government about use of pangolin stockpiles or the omission of pangolin scales from the nation’s pharmacopeia list will likely be slowed by an ongoing controversy about the animal. Connections have been rumored—but not proven—between pangolins that may have been sold at the wet market in Wuhan and the original spread of the novel coronavirus SARS-CoV-2 among humans, Thomson says.

Most evidence suggests that bats are the likeliest reservoir for the virus, with a very closely related virus found in horseshoe bats. But it’s not yet known whether an intermediary species—perhaps pangolins—may have acquired the virus from bats and transmitted it to humans. (Learn more about the role animals may play in the coronavirus spread.)

Lixin Huang, vice president of operations and China projects at the San Francisco-based California Institute of Integral Studies, says that although she hasn’t seen the 2020 pharmacopeia list, she is pleased to hear about the reported change. She credits the efforts of wildlife conservation organizations to save pangolins, and now also the international pressure related to the coronavirus. “Coronavirus was another key trigger point,” she says.

After the coronavirus pandemic spread in early 2020, China banned the consumption of wildlife and slashed the list of animals it considers domestic and thus consumable. The use of some wild animals for traditional medicine, however, is still permitted.

Update, June, 23, 2020: Pangolin scales have not been entirely eliminated from China’s official traditional Chinese medicine pharmacopoeia, according to a translation of the 2020 edition by the nonprofit Environmental Investigation Agency. Though scales have been removed as a raw ingredient, the formulas for at least eight approved medicines still list pangolin scales as an ingredient.
Wildlife Watch is an investigative reporting project between National Geographic Society and National Geographic Partners focusing on wildlife crime and exploitation. Read more Wildlife Watch stories here, and learn more about National Geographic Society’s nonprofit mission at nationalgeographic.org. Send tips, feedback, and story ideas to ngwildlife@natgeo.com.
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