Today marks the 8th annual “World Pangolin Day.”
I’m writing about pangolins because I love wildlife. I love the diversity of nature. I like pangolins a lot. They are weirdly cute, the same way sloths are cute. In fact, pangolins, with their tiny pointed faces, are cuter than sloths. Fact.
They are also likely to go extinct soon, due to a poaching crisis that has wiped out almost all of their populations across two continents in just over a decade. Elephants, rhinos, tigers, have been nearly poached to extinction as well, but not nearly as quickly. The difference here is that hardly anyone knows about pangolins.
Here’s a short video introducing these peculiar creatures:
Strange little pangolins, from Africa to Southeast Asia are being captured, killed, and dismembered because their scales have been deemed valuable. They have risen to the top of the board on the list of priorities for the global wildlife trade, along with well-known animal celebrity species like elephants, rhinos, and tigers.
But before we delve into the pangolin trafficking crisis, I want to point out something critical about the demand for wildlife itself. Let’s take a look at some of the world’s most trafficked animals and see why they are being illegally slaughtered to extinction:
Seeing a pattern?
These animals all have a striking and prominent physical feature. Rhinos have a singular horn on their nose. Elephants, giant protruding teeth. Pangolins, a hide made of tile-like scales. Turtles and tortoises are enclosed in a rock-hard shell.
The logic here is simple: such a striking, singular feature must possess special qualities. Then follows the logic that, by consuming it, we will obtain those qualities.
It’s similar to poaching tigers for their body parts: tigers are fearsome predators, practically unparalleled in the natural world in terms of hunting ability, stealth, and power. So powerful, that surely their body parts will confer some of that power if consumed?
This logic is not universal, however. For example, it’s not often applied to domesticated animals that are regularly consumed. Perhaps because we don’t want chicken powers. Or fish powers. We don’t want the power to dart frantically across the road, or grow a bulbous red growth of forehead skin, or develop a hide of slimy scales, or a memory of 6 seconds.
*One exception could be pig feet, which is consumed because it’s believed to be good for the skin. But only the skin on your face. Hmmm…
All of this is to point out that there is no logic here. Perception of an animal’s perceived medicinal qualities has nothing to do with whether or not it actually does have them. There are no scientific studies or tests to substantiate claims of medicinal benefit from tiger bones, rhino horns, or pangolin scales. There is simply the ancient logic of “Hey that looks cool. It must be magical. Let’s eat it.”
In the case of the pangolin, it’s not even about the animal’s charisma. Pangolins are silent, solitary and seldom seen. They scuttle around in remote forests eating ants (thus the thick scales). Literally the only reason they are being poached is because their scales are visually striking.
It’s all being boiled down- pun intended, sometimes- to body parts. All of these species and individual animals, slaughtered and hacked to pieces for parts of their bodies. Then those body parts are ground up and put into medicinal recipes, or consumed in soup, or distilled into wine.
Such cruelty isn’t reserved only for dogs domesticated for meat in China, a common sticking point for animal activists. It’s a fate most wildlife face at the hands of poachers who will hack them to bits.
This article details the slow death of a pangolin at the hands of poachers, who didn’t even wait to kill the animal before attempting to remove its scales. They boiled it alive.
Shark fishing, for instance, which is barely considered poaching by the general public, involves pulling a shark onto a boat and holding its thrashing body still as its fin is cut away, then tossing it, still alive, back into the ocean. Unable to swim, it slowly sinks to the bottom where it dies a slow death. Sharks are killed this way in the hundreds of millions every year.
As activist organizations have worked tirelessly for decades to stop the trade, with methods ranging from diplomacy, educational campaigns, and militant conservation, yet the demand and trade itself has only increased, it seems like so much of the efforts have been in vain. However, recently there’s been an unexpected twist in the story: scientists in Guangzhou hypothesize that the current novel coronavirus, currently wreaking havoc on China’s economy, may have come from a pangolin. It almost certainly came from wildlife, but if it came from a pangolin, it would be a remarkable thread of dark irony throughout this saga.
Governmental response to the outbreak, besides the unprecedented scale of the quarantine has been to suspend all elements of the wildlife trade for the time being.
It’s bittersweet that action on the devastating wildlife trade could come about only due to the effects on human populations. In the end, we can’t be too surprised- demand for wildlife products, almost exclusively from China, has been the unsolvable variable in the entire equation of the global wildlife trade. A country and a culture unwilling to address the brutal impacts of its demand for animal body parts on wildlife populations and ecosystems around the world. Even some of the best environmental journalism can only write about the potential solution of farmed rhinos. Yet tiger farms have existed for decades, and wild tiger populations are still poached heavily and unable to rebound.
The swiftness with which China’s authoritarian regime has enacted drastic quarantine measures on Wuhan and other cities may provide hope that the temporary ban on the wildlife trade could be just as swift, drastic, and authoritarian. Only in China could such measures be taken, so there is an odd bit of hope that Beijing’s directive will be permanently enforced. Until that optimism is substantiated, we’ll have to settle for other measures.
Why should you care about pangolins? Why should you care about the wildlife trade?
We should all care about the lack of biological diversity on our planet. It makes our environments, already fragile from climate change, that much weaker.
Consider this quote from Yuval Noah Harari, from Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow:
With regard to other animals, humans have long since become gods. We don’t like to reflect on this too deeply, because we have not been particularly just or merciful gods. If you watch the National Geographic Channel, go to a Disney film or read a book of fairy tales, you might easily get the impression that planet Earth is populated mainly by lions, wolves and tigers who are an equal match for us humans… But in reality, they are no longer there. Our televisions, books, fantasies and nightmares are still full of them, but the Simbas, Shere Khans and Big Bad Wolves of our planet are disappearing. The world is populated mainly by humans and their domesticated animals.
Human societies have simply plundered nature until hardly any of it is left but empty landscapes. But the planet is an ecosystem, in which all species are interconnected, and on which humans are inevitably dependent on. The eventual disappearance of all wildlife life will mean the eventual disappearance of humans too.
What can you do?
If you know anyone, anywhere, who may be trafficking or purchasing trafficked wildlife products for any reason, please SPEAK UP. If not for the cruelty of the poaching practices, the threat of extinction, the threat of weakening vulnerable ecosystems, then for the sheer stupidity of believing in false claims of magical powers and medicinal properties of animal body parts, for the simple vanity of purchasing something so expensive, just to prove how much money you have.
Speak up. Educate. Call them out. The only reason people still do this is that there is a culture that continues to enable it. Replace the ignorance with education.
If you find information about any instances of actual wildlife poaching and trafficking, report it immediately. There is no time to waste in stopping criminal organizations that are actively pushing wildlife to extinction and destroying the environment. WildLeaks allows you to submit information about instances of wildlife crime both securely and anonymously.
You can also support the cause. Organizations that fight poaching are frequently understaffed and underfunded, up against organized crime with billions of dollars to spend on armies of armed poachers. Many rangers, protecting wildlife from poaching, will die in armed altercations with poachers.
Let that sink in. Wildlife is now so scarce and threatened, that it needs humans to protect it. Humans who often die for the cause. Purchasing wildlife contributes to the trade that kills other human beings. If patrons of the wildlife trade don’t care about killing the last individuals of animal species, there’s a possibility they might care about their buying power supporting the killing of those less fortunate than themselves.
Lastly, pangolins are reported to be the most trafficked animal on the planet and now, a potential host of the one of the largest global epidemics of modern times that is responsible for over 1,000 deaths, and counting. In this case, the consumption of wildlife has resulted in a record number of human fatalities.
Perhaps with saving pangolins, and saving other wildlife, we might be able to save ourselves.
Wildlife Organizations Fighting to Save Pangolins and Rehabilitating Rescued Pangolins:
Save Vietnam’s Wildlife – Part of the Cuc Phuong National Park in Northern Vietnam, and a multi-faceted rescue, rehab, and community engagement program
TRAFFIC – A global authority on anti wildlife trafficking initiatives for critically endangered species, including pangolins
Wildlife Alliance – Cambodian operation fighting a bitter war against homegrown poaching in one of Southeast Asia’s last primary rainforests