Coronavirus: Protecting pangolins and wildlife protects people

Posted on 10/02/2020 by Guest Blogger

We have barely scratched the surface of the human health consequences for exploiting wildlife, but they are undoubtedly severe.

The pangolin and other wild animals have suffered for too long from human exploitation, and now we are all paying the price.

This is a guest blog by Gilbert Sape – Global Head of Traditional Medicine Campaign

From my base in Bangkok to Beijing and London – seeing people wearing face masks is becoming common sight. People are living under a shadow of fear with coronavirus sweeping the globe.

When the outbreak was initially reported to originate from Wuhan, China, there were hopes that the virus could be contained. The issue is, Wuhan is a city of 10 million – comparable to London, Bangalore or New York. It’s a bustling centre for trade, as people come and go, navigating their way around the world. So, when it comes to highly contagious viruses, what is a problem for Wuhan, is a problem for the world.

Gilbert Sape standing in front of a cage, while microchipping bears to protect them from the bear bile industry

Image: Gilbert standing in front of a cage during our bear microchipping operations. The microchips protect new bears from being poached to fuel the cruel bear bile industry.

Scientists are trying to find a cure, but as they do, the witch hunt has begun. We now know where we believe the virus was born – at a wholesale seafood market selling wildlife. But how did it develop, and from what animal did it come from?

Researchers at South China Agricultural University suggested what could potentially be an important clue. While the virus may have started in bats, it seems it didn’t have the right components to take a hold of human cells directly. For it to be passed to people, it needed a link - an intermediatory animal. Pangolins – a scaly ant-eater like mammal found across Asia and Africa, may be that link.

A pangolin in the wild, sniffing the ground. Its scales decrease in size the closer they get to its pointy face.

Image: a pangolin in the wild.

The Chinese pangolin is critically endangered, the other seven species are threatened by extinction. Yet it’s believed to be the most trafficked animal globally, with millions being poached from the wild annually. Its meat is considered a delicacy in China and Vietnam, as well as its scales, used in Traditional Asian Medicines (TAM).

Ironically, if true, the animal that is exploited for medical purposes, could be the missing piece of the jigsaw puzzle that has caused a global medical emergency.

Last year, World Animal Protection documented the cruel and gruesome ways pangolins are poached and slaughtered. I am still horrified recalling the shocking footage, showing the animal curling up in defense of the repeated machete blows.

The suffering is gut-wrenchingly sad. But the real tragedy is that pangolin scales are made of keratin – the same material as fingernails and hair and have no proven benefits. Importantly, in TAM, herbal alternatives are readily available.

An unconscious pangolin is held by the next by poachers, being boiled while probably still alive.

Image: a photo from our undercover research in 2019. Pangolins are typically suffocated from their burrows with smoke, stuffed into sacks, beaten unconscious and boiled alive.

We have barely scratched the surface of the human health consequences for exploiting wildlife, but they are undoubtedly severe. Tuberculosis, for example, recorded in captive lions and bears, and salmonella carried by reptiles such as snakes, which are also used in TAM. This is the tip of the iceberg.

Wildlife markets crowded with people and wildlife are a ticking time bomb for deadly epidemics. The animals are poached from the wild or intensively farmed, often placed in squalid, cramped cages, creating a lethal hotbed of disease, as well as causing enormous suffering and cruelty.

It doesn’t have to be this way though. The temporary wildlife trade ban enforced by Chinese government could be made permanent and enshrined in law. Currently, there’s a global ban on pangolin products, but China still allows domestic sales of medicines containing pangolin scales. But this might not be the case for much longer as China is seeking to develop alternatives for wildlife in traditional medicine and encouragingly, is looking at ways it can change the law.

Pangolin scales ready to be sold into the wildlife market

Image: pangolin scales ready to be sold into the wildlife trade.

It’s easy from the outside to say China should do more to protect pangolins and wildlife used in TAM. But the reality is, that in addition to a wildlife trade ban, a holistic approach needs to be carefully considered to stop a bootleg TAM industry evolving. A ban is not enough - the end goal is to transform the industry, as breeding wildlife for commercial gains increases public health risks and could lead to future outbreaks of viruses such as coronavirus.

Our research shows that TAM practitioners would likely prefer herbal alternatives. For example, when asked, around 85% of practitioners in China stated that they would try to minimize wildlife medicines where possible. Better still, a recent study focused heavily on pangolins by World Animal Protection and WildCRU University of Oxford, found that 89% of regular consumers indicate their willingness to move to herbal alternatives – so it really could be the solution.

A wild pangolin stands on the dry ground. Its scales are shining in the sunlight.

Some say that from disaster, comes opportunity. While it might be hard to grasp this in the thick of a global health epidemic, it’s important to recognize a broken system that can be fixed. The pangolin and other wild animals have suffered for too long from human exploitation, and now we are all paying the price. There are many reasons why I believe wild animals should be left where they belong, but I’m sure we can all agree that there are now more reasons than ever.

Wild animals belong in the wild. A permanent ban on wildlife trade by China, and the rest of the world, is the only solution – keeping wild animals wild, eliminating animal suffering, and all importantly, preventing major health epidemics.

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