Conservation and Biodiversity

China’s new pangolin ban offers hope for the species’ survival — or does it?

 If you’ve never heard of the pangolin, you’re not alone.

Resembling a cross between an anteater and a lizard, these peculiar mammals evade the spotlight. They subsist quietly in the forests of Asia and Africa, roaming only after dark and curling into a tight ball when startled. Most people don’t know that they exist, and even fewer know that they are being slaughtered by the millions.

Despite its relative anonymity, the pangolin is the most illegally trafficked animal on earth. The species has been rampantly poached to near extinction for its unique keratin scales which are a staple of traditional Chinese medicine. These scales are sold at wet markets, collections of open-air stalls selling fish, meat and produce. In countries across Asia, visiting the wet market is part of everyday life. However, in light of the coronavirus pandemic, these thriving marketplaces have fallen under global scrutiny – as has the pangolin.

As Earth Day Network’s Conservation and Biodiversity campaign recently highlighted, the way we treat the natural world affects our well-being. The loss and mismanagement of habitat and biodiversity not only impact wildlife, but can create conditions for lethal new diseases like COVID-19 to spill into human communities.

Wet markets have long been thought to perpetuate the spread of zoonotic diseases, the deadly result of a pathogen jumping from animals to humans. With live animals densely packed into cages and unhygienically slaughtered on site, it’s no surprise that these markets are a breeding ground for infection. Scientists have linked several major outbreaks to these markets, including the 2002 SARS epidemic.

So where does the pangolin come into play? It seems this overexploited species might have finally gotten its revenge.

Early indications suggest the COVID-19 pathogen originated in bats and was transmitted to humans by an intermediary host at a wet market in Wuhan, China. Although still unproven, scientists speculate the pangolin might be that host.

Out of fear that the pangolin trade might have sparked the current pandemic, China officially banned the use of pangolin scales as a raw medicinal ingredient in June. Although several loopholes still allow the use of pangolin scales as a component ingredient, this ban is a positive step towards curbing decades of illegal trafficking. 

In 2017 the pangolin was listed under Appendix I of the Convention on International Trade of Endangered Species (CITES), effectively banning all international trade. However, the UN Office of Drugs and Crime still reports that most pangolin scales seized in Asian markets are smuggled from Central Africa. Even existing Chinese laws that threaten 10 years imprisonment for dealing in pangolin trade have not been able to quell a thriving black market.

Lack of past enforcement has driven the pangolin to near extinction and possibly triggered the worst pandemic in living memory. China’s new pangolin ban offers hope for the species’ survival — however, as long as wet markets provide an avid demand for exotic animals, they will remain a ticking time bomb for the next great global pandemic. 

Earth Day Network’s Conservation and Biodiversity campaign educates and raises awareness about the accelerating rate of extinction of millions of species and the causes and consequences of this phenomenon. Many of our declining, threatened and endangered species can still recover if we work together now to build a united global movement of consumers, voters, educators, faith leaders and scientists to demand immediate action. 

Photo credit for featured photo: David Brossard/Flickr.