The Chinese government has taken two actions to protect pangolins, which are the most trafficked non-human mammals on the planet.
Pangolins now enjoy the same safeguards as pandas with a Class 1 rank under China's wildlife protection laws, which prohibits all domestic trade and use of the animal, reports National Geographic’s Dina Fine Maron. In addition, the government’s 2020 list of approved ingredients for traditional medicines does not include pangolin scales.
Together, the two changes could be a big help for the scaled, housecat-sized insectivores. Of eight species of pangolins, three are considered “critically endangered” by the International Union for Conservation of Nature and the others are either endangered or vulnerable, Ben Wescott reports for CNN. But given the dire results of decades of wildlife trafficking, some experts wonder if the changes are too little too late.
“I am very encouraged,” Zhou Jinfeng, secretary general of the China Biodiversity Conservation and Green Development Foundation, tells Michael Standaert at the Guardian. Jinfeng has long fought to reduce the use of pangolin scales and to increase protections for the small mammals. “Our continuous efforts for several years have not been in vain.”
Pangolin scales—which are made of keratin, the same material as fingernails—have been included on the traditional medicine ingredients list for decades, and they have been touted as a method to improve blood flow, reduce inflammation, treat lactation problems and treat arthritis. Per National Geographic, tens of thousands of pangolins are killed annually for their meat, which is considered a luxury in Vietnam and China, and for their scales. Conservation group WildAid reports that last year, authorities seized over 130 tons of pangolin products, representing up to 400,000 animals.
According to CNN, the government removed pangolin scales from the approved ingredients list due to “wild resource exhaustion.”
“We highly applaud this announcement, made in recognition of the need to protect critically endangered pangolins,” WildAid’s chief representative in Beijing Steve Blake says to the Guardian. “These two actions are crucial to help curb illegal trade. This shows China’s rapidly strengthened commitment to protecting wildlife.”
But Zhou adds to the Guardian that wildlife advocates must continue to be vigilant about captive breeding and medicinal research programs that use pangolins. Pangolins are difficult to breed in captivity and medicinal research conducted with stockpiles of pre-existing trafficked material are poorly regulated and “the practice is widely shown to be a magnet for poaching and the illegal trafficking of both parts and live animals,” the Guardian reports.
Director of the Pangolin Working Group at the China Biodiversity Conservation and Green Development Foundation Sophia Zhang tells CNN that while the recent changes are positive, she feels that they came “a bit late.” Pangolin populations in China are only ten percent of their size in 1960.
Zhang tells CNN, "Many years have passed. How many pangolins have already been hunted and killed?"
While wildlife conservation organizations have been pushing for pangolin protections for years, Lixin Huang, vice president of operations and China projects at the California Institute of Integral Studies in San Francisco tells National Geographic that the COVID-19 pandemic was also a “key trigger point” in the recent policy changes.
While both pangolins and bats have been suggested as carriers of the novel coronavirus that causes COVID-19 in humans, no animal vector has been confirmed, and claims that the virus passed from pangolins to humans has been refuted.
The new policies give new license to authorities to stem the illegal trade of wild pangolins. But it won’t happen overnight, and the new policies might instead push the trade further underground, WildAid’s Blake tells CNN.
"It would be naive to think it's just going to completely disappear," Blake says. "They need better enforcement and greater public awareness to reduce the demand, make sure the public is aware of the risks of consuming these products and aware of the impact on the environment. It takes a bit of time."