How COVID19 may save the species
Most people had never heard of pangolins before 2020, how a year changes things. Although their link to the spread of Covid-19 is still tenuous the fact remains that pangolins have been propelled to the forefront of our public interest in the most unusual way.
Pangolins look like otherworldly creatures from some bygone era and even among fellow mammals they appear completely out of place. Their bodies are almost completely covered by protective keratin scales making them resemble something that would look perfectly suited to prehistoric times. They are nocturnal, timid creatures that up until recently would have never been at the forefront of the public eye.
Unfortunately for the shy, innocent pangolin the pursuit and widespread use of keratin are far too alluring for the commercial forces that have led to dramatic fall in pangolin numbers worldwide.
Pangolin scales are typically made into medicinal supplements that are still widely used in many traditional Chinese remedies, mainly to aide arthritis. Keratin is also present in rhino horns and its illegal acquisition continues to fuel the demand for either traditional medicinal purposes or to create carvings or figurine, notably as religious totems.
According to a 2016 report by the China Biodiversity Conservation and Green Development Foundation, such treatments are still permitted by the government that has overseen the proliferation of over 200 pharmaceutical companies selling medicines that contain pangolin scales. No scientific evidence of the medical benefits of these treatments is available.
As a result of such demand, they are acutely at risk of extinction, according to the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN). Though International trade in the four species of Asian pangolins has been prohibited since 2000 the demand for their meat and scales continues.
According to Sabrina Weiss in Wired Magazine the complex nature of China’s wildlife trade is however ridden with legal loopholes that are graciously exploited by opportunistic traffickers, mainly through Africa. In a market that has a reported value of over £60 billion, the pangolin is stuck in the middle of capitalist forces. If the invisible hand of the free market does exist it seems to be pointing towards the pangolin.
Elephants tusks follow a similar story as they continue to needlessly be slaughtered to satisfy the ornamental charms of religious devotion. Whether this is in the form of prayer beads, crosses or amulets it is remarkable how religions such as Hinduism and Buddhism fail to publicly equate practices related to worship to this ongoing predicament. Further, still, the fact that both religions are imbued with incredible reverence for animal sanctity makes it even more shocking that elements of their practice increase the likelihood of extinction for the very animals that are held so dearly.
In light of the coronavirus outbreak and the newfound infamy of China’s trading in exotic animals, such as pangolins, China’s principle law-making body, the National People’s Congress, has promised radical reforms to current practices. It is telling that only a global pandemic of unprecedented scale in modern times has enabled such dialogue to proceed when this wasn’t the case after the first SARS outbreak in 2003 that also originate from exotic animal cross-infection. The warning signs were present then and they were ignored. When the next pandemic strikes the lessons from this time will be crucial and we cannot make the same mistakes again.