This has become the unofficial year of the pangolin – the shy and reclusive creatures have harnessed global attention after being identified as a possible link in the coronavirus pandemic.
The new focus may end up being a relative blessing for conservationists who for years have urged greater protection for the endangered species.
The Independent’s Stop The Wildlife Trade campaign was launched by its shareholder Evgeny Lebedev to call for an end to high-risk wildlife markets and for an international effort to regulate the illegal trade in wild animals to reduce the risk of future pandemics.
In 2017, the status of all eight species of pangolins was upgraded in the UN Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (Cites), barring international trade.
They remain one of the world’s most heavily trafficked mammals, driven by demand for its meat, considered a delicacy in parts of Asia, and its keratin scales, an ingredient in traditional Chinese medicine (TCM). Pangolin scales, made with protein similar to human hair and nails, are believed to cure arthritis and cancer among other ailments, without any scientific evidence.
China recently removed pangolins from the official TCM list and raised its protected status to the highest level, on par with the giant panda. Hunting, killing, smuggling or trading pangolins now carries a 10-year prison sentence. It also announced it will strictly enforce its current ban on live wildlife markets and has signalled it will take steps to end consumption of wildlife.
There are only small numbers of pangolins left in the wild in China but the government plans to bring back populations with habitat restoration.
The increased protections were encouraging signs, said WildAid CEO Peter Knights, during a webinar on pangolins this week, with chief program officer, John Baker, and hosted by Amy Tan, wildlife advocate and author of the best-selling novel, The Joy Luck Club.
“Hopefully with that class-one classification, there will be increased enforcement effort,” Mr Knights said. “The panda is a great success story. If [China] takes it as seriously as they did with the panda, then things should be looking up for the pangolin finally.”
The TCM ban was also positive news, he added, but existing stockpiles may still lead to sales. “If they can close that loophole, then there is absolutely comprehensive protection for the pangolins.”
Pangolin populations have been decimated by the illegal wildlife trade (IWT) in their natural habitats in Africa and Asia. All eight species, four found on each continent, are threatened with extinction.
The number of pangolins killed every year is hard to quantify. Conservationists estimate 200,000 pangolins annually but that is likely to be an underestimate.
Mr Baker said: “We’ve seen in the last few months major shipments of pangolin scales coming out of central and west Africa, mostly through Nigeria. These amount to eight tonnes per shipment. There were multiple shipments interdicted in Singapore, Vietnam and Hong Kong on their way into China. When you tally up the number of pangolins, it’s unsustainable, to say the least.”
As growing populations push further into diverse ecosystems for housing and industry, the natural habitats of pangolins are being lost. Poaching is also a grave threat. Pangolins, which are roughly the size of a small dog, move slowly and curl into a protective ball when threatened. Their scales can inflict wounds on predators such as big cats but offer little protection against poachers, with tracker dogs and weapons, who beat them and stuff them into bags.
Some early evidence suggests that pangolins, and bats, were a source of the coronavirus. Research has found bats and pangolins are hosts of coronaviruses in general. In total, almost three-quarters of emerging infectious diseases come from wild animals.
Mr Knights said: “It seems very likely that the bats are the primary source of Covid-19, as they were with SARS and MERS and some other diseases.”
He said that the pangolins’s role was “more questionable”.
“We do know that it could have been pangolins this time and it could definitely be pangolins the next time. So I think regardless of that, we need to act to stop these live animal markets and to curtail the risky bushmeat trade in some of these species.”
Initial reports suggested that Covid-19 originated in Wuhan, China. Of the initial 41 people admitted to hospital with the coronavirus in the city, 27 patients had been exposed to Huanan Seafood Wholesale Market, according to a study in medical journal The Lancet.
However in the earliest case, the patient had no reported link with Huanan market and, in total, 13 of the 41 cases had no association. A section of Huanan Seafood Wholesale Market reportedly sold 30 species of animals including pangolins according to The Guardian. China closed the market in January.
Scientists may never find the exact origins of Covid-19 (and one new report states there is “zero evidence“ that it came from a laboratory). On the whole, researchers agree that the most plausible explanation is that the virus made the jump from an animal to humans in a “zoonotic spillover” event.
“If animals are in the wild and not coming into close contact with human beings, then there isn’t really a risk,” Mr Knights said. “It’s when we confine them, and particularly when we stress them out by bringing many species together, overcrowding them and having nocturnal animals in bright lights. All of these things bring out what could be latent diseases.”
At wildlife markets, animals are often malnourished and dehydrated.
“The animals become infected and they start shedding the disease. Their proximity to human beings is then the next impact. If you bring them into a major city, like Wuhan, the chances of it spreading like wildfire are much greater than it is in the bush. All these are factors which make the likelihood of a disease pandemic more likely.”
To have the best chance at preventing the next pandemic, pointing the finger is entirely detrimental, he said, and instead countries needed to work together.
Mr Knights, said: “It’s not about blame anymore, it’s about how we get out of this mess.”
The conservationist said that although China appeared to have a slow initial response, the central government “really acted quite rapidly to close down all live animal markets across China and also to close down a lot of the breeding centres”.
The pandemic is also rapidly shifting attitudes to the wildlife trade and consumption of wild species.
Mr Knights said: “We’ve seen a massive outpouring on Chinese social media of the public outraged by wildlife abuse so we do see a role for the public in enforcing this going forward.”
Mr Baker said that the younger generation played a key role in shifting public opinion.
“An online poll from Beijing University in February showed over 90 per cent of respondents were supportive of closing down the wildlife trade. And pangolins, in China particularly, are very much the face of this whole crisis.”
WildAid runs a campaign to protect pangolins in China, including a public service announcement (PSA), “Kung Fu Pangolin”, with Jackie Chan, and billboards at major transit hubs. Their PSAs, also featuring actor Jay Chou and singer Angelababy, have accumulated hundreds of millions of views and have been played on every Chinese airline.
Mr Knights added: “I had a scenario where a shark fin trader was told by his grandchildren not to eat shark fin soup anymore. He stopped, still cursing the environmentalists and saying how terrible we were, but listening to his grandchildren.”
“[Younger generations] often have a lot more formal education. They’re often a lot more worldly than some of the older generations and can influence [them] to change positively.”
Ms Tan noted that prior to the pandemic “few people knew a pangolin from a mandolin” and raised concerns that the species links to Covid-19 would lead to more being hunted.
Along with a global response, protecting the pangolin requires strategies honed for culturally diverse regions, Mr Knights said, along with cooperation between China and its neighbours.
“The Chinese government is as much invested in eliminating risk of pangolin or different coronaviruses from the wildlife trade throughout the region… it’s in their utmost interest to assist the governments of Vietnam, Laos and Myanmar, especially, to clean up,” he said.
“With pangolins, obviously a lot of them now are coming from Africa. We need African countries in many cases to improve their laws and the penalties involved for poaching animals like pangolins. We also need them to collaborate with Chinese customs so that when there’s a seizure going to China from Lagos, Nigeria, there’s some actions taken on both ends. There’s been a lot of progress on that in recent times.
“But no country can solve this individually and we look to countries like the United States to provide technical support in some of these efforts. It has to be a global effort.”
Pangolin meat is a subsistence protein in parts of rural Africa, which should not be focus in tackling the IWT in the species, Mr Knights said.
“I think the primary target in African countries has to be the urban consumers of bushmeat. They’re largely unaware of the risks and urban people do have a choice. They have the money to choose other options.
“Bringing those animals into urban centres, mixing together and keeping them alive, that’s when the disease risk really goes up.”
Alerting rural areas can be made part of health education, he said, and “educating people to avoid high-risk species, like the pangolins, primates, some of the rodents, the civet cats and bats.
“I think the solution for Africa is not going to be a total ban, in some cases, on bushmeat but a selective ban that says these are the species that you can’t consume and here’s the species which are endangered.”
Some African governments are already taking steps. Prior to the Covid-19 pandemic, Malawi’s government banned all bushmeat trade over anthrax fears. Gabon is pushing towards a ban on pangolins and bats.
A serious risk in Africa is posed by the bushmeat trade in primates as their similar genetic makeup to humans makes zoonotic transfer easier. Scientists identified a type of chimpanzee in west Africa as the source of HIV infection in humans, according to the Aids Institute.
With the well-documented risks of the IWT, protecting wild species has never been more crucial. Yet the pandemic has placed a huge strain on funding for conservation projects and rangers at a time when eco-tourism, also a financial source for some operations, has been shut down. Many conservationists also fear that devastating economic hardship following Covid-19 will push more people into the illegal trade.
Shutdowns across the globe have limited international trade and travel, making it harder for trafficking networks to move their illegal gains, as a recent Wildlife Justice report found. But as economies wind back up, traffickers are poised to get back to business.
Mr Knights said: “In Nigeria, initially pangolin poaching went up because a lot of the poachers had other jobs. Normally, they’d be a mechanic in the day [for example] and go pangolin poaching at night, and they suddenly just shifted to poaching. But then the pangolins didn’t sell because nobody was coming out to the markets. It’s been a mixed bag from that point of view.”
Getting emergency support to Africa’s frontline rangers was crucial. “They’re still in the field right now but they don’t know how long they can sustain that effort.
“The other thing is that when there’s tourists around and lodges open, staff going backwards and forwards, there are eyes and ears on the ground. Now a lot of places are completely empty. People can get in without being scrutinised.”
He pointed to one eco-tourism business where staff had taken to the parks with binoculars, not guns, to try to prevent harm befalling the wildlife.
The coronavirus has been a painful lesson that protecting pangolins, along with all endangered species, does not exist in a vacuum but intertwines with climate change, deforestation and biodiversity loss, and is layered with economic, environmental and social justice concerns.
“We need to change our approach, our priorities and count our costs,” Mr Knights said. “It’s not just the cost today, it’s the cost tomorrow. And I don’t think we’ll ever see a more graphic illustration of that than this pandemic.”
Join our new commenting forum
Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies