In what appears to be a big win for animal conservationists, pangolins have finally been taken off of China’s official list of accepted traditional medicines — and all it took was a global pandemic.
Pangolins, a scaly variety of anteater endemic to Asia and Africa, have long been one of the world’s most trafficked endangered species, thanks in large part to demand for their use in traditional Chinese medicine (TCM). Yesterday, however, the state-run Chinese tabloid Global Times reported that pangolins would no longer be included in Chinese Pharmacopoeia, an official compendium of guidelines for traditional medical products that are widely used within China.
The decision comes after Chinese researchers in February identified the pangolin as a potential intermediary for COVID-19 between bats – which are thought to have first carried the deadly coronavirus – and humans.
While there is currently no scientific consensus on the relationship between pangolins and COVID-19, China's National Forestry and Grassland Administration announced on June 3 that all species of pangolins would be listed as first-class protected animals, an upgrade from its second-class status. The move gave pangolins the highest level of protection, placing them in a league with other endangered species such as giant pandas, South China tigers, and snub-nose monkeys.
The heightened protections were greeted with praise by the World Wildlife Fund’s Margaret Kinnaird, who called them a “significant milestone” at the time.
Chinese authorities had already outlawed the poaching of pangolins in 2007 and banned the commercial import of pangolin-related products in 2018, but the moves did little to stem the trade, thanks in part to loopholes in the ban and the lenient treatment of those involved.
Suwanna Gauntlett, the founder of Cambodia-based non-governmental organisation Wildlife Alliance, said today that the new protections and the decision to remove pangolins from the list of traditional Chinese medicines were “fantastic news.”
“The caveat is that it’s one thing to remove it from the list, but it’s another to actually enforce the law,” she told VICE.
Indeed, wildlife markets remain prevalent across China and Southeast Asia. And one-time raids on sites of smuggling operations have rarely had a lasting effect on wildlife trade syndicates.
Pangolin scales have long been believed to provide relief for arthritis and to stimulate lactation, among many other perceived health benefits, but the claims have no basis. Pangolin scales are actually made of keratin — just like human hair and fingernails.
It remains to be seen if the latest protections for pangolins will translate to tangible results in pangolin trafficking. After all, TCM constitutes an important part of China’s pharmaceutical industry, and age-old beliefs about the purported health benefits of rare animal parts have proven stubbornly persistent.
As Wildlife Alliance’s Gauntlett noted: “It’s going to take a lot more effort from all the supply countries, all the organisations, all the governments, including China, to stop pangolins… from being extracted from their natural habitat… from being transported on the road towards national borders, and… from being consumed.”
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