Between the scales: why is there such a high demand for pangolins?

Posted on 23 February 2022 By David Henning

The pangolin is the world’s most trafficked animal, with wildlife trafficking becoming one of the most lucrative organised crimes in the world. The price of pangolins in China has increased tenfold in the past decade, but just why is there such a demand for this scaly creature?

PPangolin poachers sentenced to eight years in prison

Picture Getaway Gallery.

Meet the Pangolin

Pangolins are an incredible species, having evolved from unique morphological and ecological adaptions over tens of millions of years. Fun facts aside, they are one of the few mammalian orders where every member species is threatened with extinction.  All eight species of pangolin are listed on the IUCN’s red list of threatened species.

Despite this, knowledge about them remains poor, especially when it comes to the extent of trafficking, and why they are trafficked.

This is thankfully changing thanks to pangolin working groups around the world, and the pangolin has become a high profile ambassador in combating the wildlife trade. But why is there a demand for pangolins?

Growing pangolin demand

Most consumers reported purchasing pangolin products at retail stores and Traditional Chinese Medicine pharmacies across most cities. Picture: Dan Bennet/ Wikimedia Commons

Pangolins are predominantly used for a variety of medicinal and ritualistic purposes, but China’s economic growth and integration into global markets have made its current consumption levels wholly unsustainable. In the period between 2006 and 2016, China imported 14.89 tonnes of pangolin scales, equivalent to approximately 14 890 pangolins.

According to the African Wildlife Foundation, pangolin demand is growing, and economic insecurity in pangolin range states have resulted in more incentive to traffic pangolins. The recent case of a pangolin being held ransom by rebels in the Democratic Republic of Congo serves as a prime example.

Behavioural studies on the unsustainable levels of consumption in East Asia and especially China have revealed that its medicinal consumption remains rooted in cultural beliefs and established institutions.

According to the study, a quarter of residents in 10 Chinese cities only ate pangolin meat because of its high regard as an ‘expensive status symbol’ or ‘exotic wild animal’.

The authors of the article note that this is just conspicuous consumption to convey status, and will likely be an infrequent purchase that can be addressed with proper regulation and consumer awareness.

A pangolin rescued from the illegal wildlife trade by the  Johannesburg Wildlife Veterinary Hospital. Picture: Getaway Gallery

It’s the second, more socially ingrained use that is more difficult to address. Pangolin’s use in traditional medicine is prolific and growing.

Pangolin scales are made of keratin (the substance that makes up hair and nails) and have absolutely no proven medicinal value, just like rhino horns.

Yet, results of the survey revealed that 78% of self-declared pangolin consumers purchased scales in the past year to cure illnesses and contribute to overall well-being.

This is challenging to address. Take the example of a grandmother supplying and recommending scales to a new mother to help with lactation, in a culture where elders are usually beyond reproach.

It makes it even tougher to address when conservationists have good intentions, but lack of cultural sensitivity could easily be dismissed as a form of cultural imperialism, especially when the wildlife and target market in question do not reside in the same place.

The medicinal uses of pangolin scales are also entrenched in national institutions, listed as official Pharmacopeia in China, prescribed to promote lactation, improve circulation and treat skin diseases.

Although the sale and trade of some pangolin species have been prohibited in China, there is a legal trade in medicinal use. This allows for sales from government stockpiles to be used in the manufacture of around 70 patented traditional medicines by 200 pharmaceutical companies before being sold by about 700 hospitals in China.

When looking at the widespread scale of their consumption and normalisation, addressing the trade is a lot more complex than it seems.

Tackling pangolin consumption

The Wildlife Rapid Rescue Team operate in South East Asia with a rescued pangolin. Picture: Wildlife Alliance/ Flickr Commons

Addressing unsustainable pangolin consumption requires a multi-faceted approach.

Of course, there is a vital role on the side of consumption, where proper anti-poaching strategies are in place. Regulatory and monitoring measures need to be in place along transport routes, as the demand completely outstrips supply at the moment.

Behavioural approaches to address the trade are often overlooked and could have a profound and positive effect on the trade. In Namibia for example, Kelsey Prediger, secretary of the Namibian Pangolin Working Group says there has been a civic information initiative to inform people about the value of pangolins.

‘When there is a healthy number of pangolins, grasses tend to grow better and farmers have access to more livestock feed,’ Prediger told me. When the animal is reframed as an asset, people begin to see its intrinsic value.

In getting back to the Chinese example, the authors of the study conclude that key messengers need to be engaged, ‘such as Ministries of Health and traditional medical colleges. A sustainable industry with a respected institution needs to be encouraged, like the World Federation of Chinese Medicine Societies.’

Perhaps pangolin demand can be more successfully addressed in a culturally sensitive and reverent campaign.


World Pangolin Day 2022: The fight to save pangolins continues



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