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PITY THE pangolin. With its hard coating and its ability to roll into a small ball when threatened, the scaly anteater, as it is also called, has an advantage over most predators. But that cannot repel humans. Pangolins, which are endangered, are the most trafficked wild mammals in the world. Most end up in China.
Traditional Chinese medicine practitioners claim that scales have properties that can help breastfeeding and poor circulation. Some Chinese people consider the flesh as a delicacy. Live specimens occasionally appear in China’s wildlife markets. Scientists believe that a pangolin could have spread the covid-19 virus to humans. This idea has propelled animals into the global spotlight. Attention is absolutely necessary.
Pangolins are found in the wild in several Asian countries, including China. But demand from China, particularly for scales, has weighed heavily on these populations. The contraband animals therefore come mainly from Africa. the UN estimates that the equivalent of 142,000 whole pangolins were seized by various countries in 2018, more than ten times more than in 2014 (when the police in the city of Guangzhou, in the south of China, found the illustrated transport here).
Eating pangolins is illegal in China, but not putting their scales in medical preparations. More than 700 hospitals in China are authorized to prescribe pangolin scales, which they can purchase from the government. This use covers illegal trade. The same goes for government approval of pangolin farms. This is an unlikely source for many scales – pangolins are very difficult to breed in captivity – but they can help pangolin whitening.
Activists are seeing encouraging signs. On World Pangolin Day in February, the main spokesman for the Communist Party, the People’s Daily, used social media to appeal to the love of pangolin and to remind people that scales are no more useful as medicine than human nails. That month, the government temporarily banned wildlife trade and closed wild animal farms. The Chinese parliament has announced that it will hold its deferred annual session next month. It can decide to make these measures permanent. But environmentalists fear that exceptions for medicine are still being made. In October 2018, China lifted a 25-year ban on the medicinal use of tiger bone and rhino horn. What hope, then, for the pangolins?
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This article appeared in the China section of the print edition under the title “Tilting the scale”
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