Last week, China accorded the pangolin the highest level of protection and removed the scales of the endangered mammal from its list of approved traditional medicines.
Experts said that while China banned pangolin meat in February amid links between wild meat and the transmission of the SARS-CoV-2 virus, they remain sceptical on how seriously the ban on its scales — which are believed to have various health benefits — will be imposed.
What is China’s latest decision?
A report published on June 6 in the Health Times, a Chinese state-run publication, says that the State Forestry and Grassland Administration had issued a notice on June 5 upgrading its protection of pangolins and banning all commercial trade of the endangered mammal.
The move came about after the 2020 edition of the “Chinese Pharmacopoeia” excluded traditional medicines made from four species, and also listed alternatives sourced from species which are not endangered, reported the Health Times.
What does Covid-19 have to do with China’s decision?
Back in February, when reports linking the transmission of the virus to wet markets in Wuhan emerged, China banned the consumption of wild animals, including pangolins, in an attempt to limit the risk of diseases being transmitted to humans from animals.
Before its latest decision, China has, over the past year, removed health insurance cover to Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) recipes containing pangolin products.
Also, pangolin meat is considered a delicacy in China and Vietnam, and their scales — which are made of keratin, the same protein present in human nails — are believed to improve lactation, promote blood circulation, and remove blood stasis. These so-called health benefits are so far unproven.
Jose Louies, Deputy Director & Chief, Wildlife Crime Control Division at the Wildlife Trust of India, said that the suspected link between the virus and pangolins likely influenced China’s decision.
But while the link between pangolins and Covid-19 remains unproven, the mere suspicion has increased public discussion on health risks from human-wildlife interactions, and raised awareness of the exploitation of pangolins, said Faith Hornor, an analyst at C4ADS, an American non-profit tracking and analysing global conflict and transnational security issues.
“Recent reporting suggests that coronaviruses likely cannot be transmitted through the consumption of pangolin scales. If this is true, solely eliminating pangolin scales from TCM may not prevent transmission of diseases such as COVID-19,” she said.
What makes pangolins the most trafficked animals in the world?
Eight species of the scaly insectivorous creatures are distributed across Asia and Africa. They have long been hunted for their meat and scales, which indigenous tribes in central and eastern India are also known to have worn as rings. Two of these species are found in 15 states in India, although their numbers are yet to be completely documented.
The creatures are strictly nocturnal, repelling predators by curling up into scaly spheres upon being alarmed. The same defence mechanism however, makes them slow and easy to catch once spotted. While pangolin populations are well spread out across the country, they do not occur in large numbers and their shy nature makes encounters with humans rare.
Their alleged health benefits in TCM prompted a booming illicit export of scales from Africa over the past decade. International outcry over pangolins being hunted to near extinction has resulted in crackdowns on wildlife traffickers in Africa, and the interception of containers containing several tonmes of live pangolins and scales. Conservation of pangolins received its first shot in the arm when the 2017 Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) enforced an international trade ban.
Are the animals trafficked from India as well?
Law enforcement authorities in India have made seizures of pangolin scales from 2012 onward. Agni Mitra, Regional Deputy Director (Eastern Region), Wildlife Crime Control Bureau (WCCB), said “Once the demand for pangolins in China became known, indigenous tribes in Eastern and Central India began to supply customers through middlemen in Bhutan and Nepal.”
Once Pangolins are caught, killed and skinned, the exchange of scales typically takes place at Siliguri in West Bengal or at Moreh in Manipur. Poachers use only trains and buses to avoid detection, and carry as much as 30 kg of scales at a time, said Mitra.
The WCCB has found that the consignments are transported to Bhutan and Nepal via porous borders in Siliguri and into Myanmar from Moreh and onwards to paying customers.
A study released in 2018 by the international conservation group TRAFFIC had found that 5,772 pangolins had been detected by law enforcement agencies in India between 2009 and 2017. The study acknowledged, however, that the figure was a conservative estimate of the number of pangolins actually being smuggled out of India.
The Madhya Pradesh Police’s Special Task Force is the leader in tracking pangolin poachers and traffickers. Formed in 2014 specifically to crack down the illicit export of the endangered creatures, the STF has arrested 164 people in 13 cases across 12 states since then, and seized 80 kg of scales, STF chief Ritesh Sarothiya said.
Given the fluctuating demand for scales, Mitra said, it is difficult to put a value to pangolin parts. WCCB detectives who have managed to successfully trap smugglers over the years by posing as buyers, have had to quote anywhere between Rs 30,000 and Rs 1 crore for a single animal. “The price went through the roof in September last year after the supply of pangolins from Africa dropped sharply,” he said.
How will China’s decision impact pangolin trafficking?
The immediate impact, said Dr Saket Badola of TRAFFIC India, would be pangolin scales losing their legitimacy in TCM. However, WTI’s Louies said that the history of the ban of wildlife trade in China is not encouraging, citing as an example the continued availability of tiger bone wine — believed to cure a host of conditions ranging from dysentery to rheumatism — despite its ban on tiger products in 1993.
Peter Knights, CEO of WildAid, an American organisation working to conserve endangered species, pointed out that the price of elephant ivory plummeted by two-thirds after China banned it. “We remain hopeful the same trend will apply to pangolin scales,” he said.
India, where the trade largely remains local, has been registering a decline from before China’s ban.
“The Wildlife Seizure Database maintained by C4ADS shows that between January 2015 and May 2019, India made 115 seizures of live or dead pangolins, second in Asia only to China. In addition, the Indian law enforcement agencies arrested 330 people in connection with pangolin trafficking and seized 950 kgs of scales. C4ADS analysis shows that in the past five years, India has accounted for 22% of overall pangolin and pangolin scale seizures in Asia, second only to China and Hong Kong. Globally however, India only accounts for less than 1% of the global weight of pangolin scales seized, much lower than those seized by Nigeria, Cameroon, and Uganda In Africa.
The database also registered a dip in pangolin product seizures in India between January and May this year as compared to the corresponding period last year — from 15 to 12.”
While Horner of C4ADS attributed this to the decrease to border closures, shifts in law enforcement priorities, or decreased media reporting on wildlife seizures, Mitra of the WCCB credited the decline to the disappearance of public transport due to the national lockdown.
Louies said the trade in India was limited to “unorganised traders” and “con-artists”.
“The trade in pangolin scales is already showing a decreasing trend in India and the only trade is the trade in live animals by unorganised traders, who ask for a few crore for each live animal,” Louies said.
While Knights hailed China’s decision as the “single greatest measure that could be taken to save the pangolin”, he warned that questions still remain about what it means for approved patent medicines. “Pangolin trade will not disappear overnight,” Knights said.