Pangolins are the most trafficked mammal in the world, in large part due to demand from Chinese consumers. Scientists are pointing to these peculiar creatures as a possible source of the coronavirus outbreak in China, where a temporary ban on all wildlife trade is now in force. Could this mean fresh hope for pangolins? Why are they so sought-after? And why, despite laws preventing their trade, have they been hunted to the point of extinction?
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More from this series:
Episode 2: Pangolins, poverty and porous borders
Xu Jiaming, the Pangolin Reports
Tin Htet Paing, Myanmar Now
Wander Meijer, Globescan
Dr Lao Lixing, University of Hong Kong (formerly)
Executive producer and host: Marcy Trent Long
Producer and host: Bonnie Au
Assistant producer: Amber Hou
Sound engineer: Chris Wood
Intro/outro music: Alex Mauboussin
Vox Pop 1: It’s called thin kway kyat [Burmese for “pangolin”]. When they smell danger, they are rounded, right?
Vox Pop 2: This mammal is so elusive.
Vox Pop 3: It’s almost like a magical, mythical creature. Some say it looks like a dragon, and when it curls up, it looks like a dragon egg.
Vox Pop 4: It sheds tears. Its eyes are often teary.
Vox Pop 5: It’s not a particularly cute animal. Quirky, eccentric maybe. Shy… they don’t show themselves in the day.
Marcy Trent Long: They’re talking about pangolins, the most trafficked mammal in the world. These lizard-like animals have up to 1,000 scales covering their bodies, and when threatened, curl up in a little ball for protection. They’re native to Africa and Asia, and during the night emerge from their dens to feed on a diet of ants and termites.
So why are these shy creatures so sought after here in Asia, and what’s being done to save them?
In this season, we follow an international group of journalists who have joined forces to produce the Pangolin Reports, an investigation into the poaching, smuggling and consumption of pangolins. Bonnie Au, a Hong Kong-based journalist, and I go undercover with them here in Asia to look at why this prehistoric mammal is being trafficked to extinction.
Welcome to Sustainable Asia. I’m Marcy Trent Long. This is Season Seven: the Pangolin Reports.
For many years, pangolin scales have been used in traditional Chinese medicine, and their meat viewed as a luxury item by Chinese. They buy them to impress friends, family and business partners, kind of like the seafood “four treasures” that we talked about in season four.
This appetite for unusual species continues, even in the face of the “Wuhan coronavirus”. But Bonnie, what does the Wuhan coronavirus have to do with pangolins?
Bonnie Au: Well, actually quite a lot. So it turns out that the cause of this outbreak has been linked to a wholesale seafood market, which allegedly sold all kinds of wildlife meat – from koalas and peacocks to salamanders, bamboo rats… and, of course, there’s the pangolins. China’s love for eating unusual species is backfiring now, as poor handling of these wild animals in crowded wet markets is somehow spreading diseases like the coronavirus to humans.
Marcy: So by handling and eating these unusual animals, Chinese are now actually putting their own lives at risk?
Bonnie: Pretty much. So, that’s why in January this year China placed a temporary ban on wildlife trade.
Marcy: To combat the coronavirus.
Bonnie: Yes. But, of course, not all Chinese people follow this habit of eating wildlife. Like Xu Jiaming. He’s a brave lead reporter for the Pangolin Reports. So a couple of months ago, he decided to fly from China to Myanmar and go undercover to learn more about the pangolin trade there. So we asked him to record a diary for us.
Xu Jiaming: Today is the 14th of November. I have just arrived in Myanmar, got some cash and changed my SIM card. I just booked myself a taxi on the app, just waiting for it to come now. The weather is pretty hot, it definitely felt more crowded.
Bonnie: Jiaming had just arrived in Yangon, a southern city [and the capital] of Myanmar.
Jiaming: I’m from northern China. I’ve never heard of anyone eating pangolins before, and I knew nothing about pangolins. But I have been living in Guangzhou for six years, so I know people in Guangdong have this cultural tradition of eating wild animals, I think I might have heard of people talking about this pangolin as a wildlife cuisine before.
Bonnie: He said his first knowledge of pangolins came from this Chinese cartoon called Hulu Wa. Jiaming was like most Chinese of his generation – they had heard about the medicinal qualities of the pangolin, but they really didn’t know much about the animal itself.
Jiaming: I only got to know more about pangolins after I started working on the Pangolin Reports. Before then, I didn’t even know it was endangered, or at which level of protection it was under.
Bonnie: During his trip in Myanmar, he partnered with a Burmese journalist.
Tin Htet Paing: My name is Tin Htet Paing.
Bonnie: She is a senior reporter and editor with the newspaper Myanmar Now.
Tin: We Burmese people, we’re not very… especially those who live in cities, we’re not very familiar with pangolins.
Marcy: It turns out that Myanmar is one of the hotspots for eating pangolins, partly because it’s so close to China.
Jiaming: The location was quite interesting. It’s located just opposite Myanmar’s international airport, in a hotel that seems to only target Chinese tourists. In the floor below, there were two to four restaurants of different classes. Some were specialty restaurants, some were fast food restaurants. I saw a lot of written Chinese, and there were many Chinese people too.
Tin: The whole atmosphere [was] very strange for me. But Jiaming said: “It’s really China.” The atmosphere didn't look right for me, even though I'm a Burmese Chinese.
Bonnie: Jiaming and Tin are now at the restaurant, and he’s asking the owner whether there are any wildlife delicacies.
The restaurant owner said: “We have bear paws, pangolins, everything. We can braise them and have them in soups and hot pots, for everything.”
And here Jiaming says: “Just one pangolin, you can use it for several meals?”
“Yes, twice,” the owner said. “Half for braise, and half for soup.”
The restaurant owner says that’s about 800 Chinese yuan for 1 kg, that’s more than US$100.
Jiaming then asked: “Do I need to pre-order?” And the restaurant owner says that they have it every day.
Jiaming and the restaurant owner even exchanged their WeChat accounts. And the owner continues to say that he has everything from bear paws to snake scales, basically everything.
The restaurant owner also reassured Jiaming that they have been doing this business for over a decade.
This was really surprising to Jiaming and Tin. But then something even more unexpected happened.
Tin: I didn't think that we would be able to see one. But it was so easy and open. And one guy came out holding a pangolin, and he put it on the mat. And I was like: "Whoa!" That was the first time I saw a live pangolin. That was a little bit shocking, surprising and eye-opening for me.
Marcy: Why are pangolins so sought after by some Chinese?
Bonnie: Jiaming says pangolins are rather expensive, so if you are a boss or CEO and you treat your guests to it, it demonstrates your power, and that gives you “face” and makes you look generous.
He also says that maybe it’s more of the shady side in Chinese traditional culture. Just like bear paws and monkeys, all of these are delicacies that give “face”.
Marcy: The question is: where are the pangolins in these restaurants coming from? All of the eight species of pangolins that live in Asia and Africa are listed on CITES Appendix I, a global trade agreement that bans all international trade of the mammal. So if they’re coming from outside Myanmar, then it would have to be through pretty sophisticated illegal – and probably criminal – smuggling networks. The other option is that maybe they’re being sourced from their local habitat in eastern Myanmar?
Bonnie: Well, yeah, it doesn’t really make sense, because under Myanmar law, hunting, selling and trading of pangolins is completely illegal. If you’re convicted in Myanmar, you would be sentenced to three to ten years in prison or fined up to US$700.
Marcy: So, [in] the restaurant in Yangon, Myanmar where Jiaming and Tin went, somehow the laws are not being enforced?
Bonnie: That’s right. According to Jiaming, Chinese diners who want to eat pangolin meat find it easier to go out of the country to places like Myanmar.
Jiaming: Eating pangolins in China is not so easy. There was this one time where we connected with an experienced volunteer who has been fighting against pangolin consumption for years. He gave me a trader’s number from Guangxi, and also made up a good cover story for me. So I started developing a relationship with the trader, and when I got back from Vietnam to Guangxi, I asked if I could meet him. He suddenly became very alert. He made it clear that what we were doing is illegal. “Are you trying to put me in danger? What are you? ” He was very suspicious of me. In fact, according to people who have been investigating this for years, they also said it’s difficult to find pangolins to eat, and it’s also very expensive. So the trend is slowly fading. It has improved a lot in China – fewer people are eating pangolins.
Marcy: Under China’s Wild Animal Protection Law enacted in 1988, pangolins are listed as class two endangered wildlife, which means that Chinese law prohibits the hunting, selling and buying of pangolins for cooking and food consumption. And a recent amendment to the law banned trading pangolins on the internet. So the situation inside China appears to be improving and they seem to be enforcing these laws. But after this short break, we’ll talk about why this effort may still not be enough to protect the pangolins.
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Marcy: So China is doing a better job controlling the illegal trade of pangolin under their Wild Animal Protection Law. But because pangolins are considered a class two endangered wildlife, you can still hunt, buy and sell pangolins in China for some purposes.
Bonnie: Under the class two status, pangolins can still be traded for scientific studies or other authorised uses. And that “other authorised uses” opens up a big loophole in the law. Because, according to Jiaming’s research, the official guidebook on Chinese medicine lists pangolins as an allowable ingredient.
Jiaming: In China, it is very easy to buy legal and medicinal pangolin scales. At least in Guangzhou, Foshan, Shantou, Guangxi, Nanning and several other cities I [visited], legal pangolin scales were easily accessible. Its price is about 7 to 10 Chinese yuan (US$1 – US$1.43) per gramme. It’s just a more expensive traditional Chinese medicine really.
Marcy: In the 1960s, Chinese state agencies counted about 160,000 pangolins captured every year. But those pangolins in China are pretty much gone. In 2015, the Pangolin Reports estimated that about 50,000 pangolins worth of scales [were] illegally imported into China. So the question is, what drives this huge demand from China? Why are people willing to pay these higher prices?
Wander Meijer: Well, by far and by biggest it’s the growing affluence. That actually is driving almost anything in China.
Marcy: Wander Meijer, Director of Globescan, specialises in market research reports to better understand end consumers of the wildlife trade.
Wander: I mean, let's not forget there are 1.4 billion Chinese people. And also, 30-40 years ago, everybody was poor. Now almost half of those people are middle class, so this is an enormous accumulation of wealth. And all those people, most of those people actually, in one way or other, consume TCM.
Marcy: TCM is traditional Chinese medicine.
Wander: So if you just multiply the enormous increase of the middle class with the number of people who potentially could buy… So it’s, according to our research, maybe just 8-10% of people have bought one piece of [TCM containing a] pangolin product over the past 12 months or 24 months. But let's not forget that [there are] three, four, five hundred million middle class people in China. So then you end up with millions and millions of people buying these products. So that is the biggest increase, or the biggest reason for the increase in the demand for pangolins.
Marcy: What types of people in China tend to consume pangolin scales for medicinal reasons?
Wander: We didn't see major differences between gender, no major differences between age either. The major differentiating factor is income and education. And actually since income and education are almost parallel – the more you’ve studied, in general, the more you earn – those are the main drivers of the consumption of pangolin parts and products.
Marcy: OK. So it’s clear that China’s recent affluence has increased the demand for pangolins. In fact, a lot of illegal wildlife has been smuggled into China because of this new wealth. But do pangolin scales really have the positive health effects that some people believe?
Bonnie: That’s a good question. We talked to Dr Lao Lixing who is the retired director of the University of Hong Kong’s School of Medicine – one of the leading global institutions researching the efficacy of wildlife ingredients in TCM. He said that pangolin scales have a unique place in Chinese medicine.
Dr Lao Lixing: Pangolin scales were originally used in Chinese medicine mainly to promote lactation for women after delivering babies. [When] they don't have enough milk for the kids, then that can help. The other one is for the females’ menstruation, to stimulate the menstruation flow. Then also for other conditions, for example arthritic conditions – joint pain, particularly due to the wind, cold weather or dampness in the body.
Bonnie: Pangolin scales are unique because they are made up mostly of keratin – the same stuff our fingernails are made of. It’s a protective protein that can be used for a lot of ailments in Chinese medicine.
Marcy: But, has Chinese medicine been scientifically proven [to work]? Or is it really just a superstition?
Lao: Good question, but I can answer. I don't think it is a superstition. If you look at the original literature, the Asian literature, it has nothing to do with superstition. They really thought these [ingredients] could be used, and they practised their use in treating patients, so they found them useful and patients recovered. However, even though Chinese medicine has been used for many, many years, it still lacks something called “evidence based”. That means we don't have enough research. We don't have this kind of evidence to support this.
Bonnie: Dr Lao also quoted from a study that said that over 80% of Chinese practitioners believed endangered species should not be used in Chinese medicine, and that they should use alternatives instead. He then quoted from a famous book called Da Yi Jing Cheng by Sun Simiao, a Tang dynasty physician who is dubbed the “king of medicine” in China.
Lao: He said that in ancient times, some people use animal products to treat humans. However, if you kill an animal or take a life to save another life, it moves away from the original meaning…
Bonnie: …the original meaning of life. Sun said that in the greater scheme of things, he believed the lives of animals and humans were equal.
Lao: So that's why he said: “I never use animal products in my formula.”
Marcy: So it seems that in the original Chinese medicine from the Tang dynasty over 1,000 years ago, Chinese doctors like Sun did not prescribe animal ingredients to patients.
Bonnie: But things are looking a little bit it different now in China. Jiaming, do you know how often pangolins are legally prescribed to patients?
Jiaming: Actually, from the list of medicines we saw, China has around 70 categories and 200 kinds of Chinese medicine that includes the legal use of pangolins. [But] in China, TCM doctors and clinics are reluctant to prescribe them to patients. Some even turn down patients [who want] these medicines. And in fact some of these medicines have stopped [being] manufactured. If you want to buy the raw ingredient, you will actually buy the entire shell, and it is legal. The raw ingredient is quite easily accessible. So after registering and [bringing] it back home, you can boil it as Chinese medicine yourself.
Marcy: So it sounds like there is a little bit of a contradiction. You can buy pangolin scales as a raw ingredient, but they are not being prescribed much by TCM doctors.
Bonnie: It’s like Jiaming said earlier: pangolin scales are just a more expensive choice for a Chinese medicine ingredient. Jiaming also had this to say:
Jiaming: I hope that China will improve and reform the Chinese medicinal use of pangolins, referencing what they are already doing for other wildlife species’ parts such as elephant tusks, buffalo horns and tiger bones.
In August 2019, there were discussions [around] increasing pangolins’ protection to a class one endangered species. And that includes not just the Chinese pangolins, but also the Malayan and Indian pangolins. So I guess these are all signs of improvement – the very first steps. The whole process will, of course, be a long one.
Marcy: Thanks to the Pangolin Reports and their courageous journalists Xu Jiaming from Guangzhou and Tin Htet Paing from Myanmar, we have a much better understanding now of how to stop the illegal pangolin trade and save this unique, harmless and adorable mammal from extinction.
In October this year, for the first time ever, China is hosting the UN Convention on Biodiversity. Maybe this will be the time when China finally decides it can move pangolins up to a class one endangered [species] under the law, and ban it from being sold for medicinal purposes. After all, it seems to be more of a luxury medicine anyway.
Bonnie: From Dr Lao, we can see that the original intention of TCM was to respect and appreciate the use of animals. But that seems to have drifted away with the increasing wealth in China recently.
Marcy: This February, China is supposed to convene pre-meetings in Kunming to prepare for the October UN biodiversity conference. But those meetings have to be relocated given the Wuhan coronavirus epidemic. It’s interesting that, just as China is taking an admirable leadership role on the subject of biodiversity, the Wuhan coronavirus is shining a spotlight on a dark side of China’s wildlife consumption.
Marcy: In the next episode of Season Seven: the Pangolin Reports we’ll look at the pangolin trade in Southeast Asia, and how that trade is not only killing off the pangolins but also getting innocent villagers caught in its web of criminal trafficking.
Jiaming: She picked out a pangolin from a nylon bag and dumped it into a bamboo basket. That pangolin was so active and full of energy. It was trying to escape. It got out of the basket right away. It fell on the ground. The owner picked it up again, hitting it on its head. It rolled up again into a ball, and the lady put it back into the nylon bag.
Season seven of the Sustainable Asia podcast, the Pangolin Reports, was made in collaboration with China Dialogue and the Pangolin Reports. The season was hosted by me, Marcy Trent Long, [and] produced by Bonnie Au with assistant producer Amber Hou. Sound engineering was by Chris Wood. A big thank you to our voice-over [artist] Jack Lau and the Sustainable Asia team: Josie Chan, Crystal Wu, Yufei Wu, Sam Colombie and Jill Baxter. Alexander Mauboussin created the intro/outro music, made from repurposed and recovered waste items. You can find his work on www.kalelover.net.
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