As a child growing up in Malaysia in the early 2000s, I listened in wonderment as my mother told me how she had encountered at least one wild pangolin every month in the 1970s.
She relayed a particular occasion when a friend phoned her to describe an odd, scaly, rolled-up creature sleeping in the drain outside their home in what is now a heavily urbanised area. Her response was simply “It’s a pangolin, just leave it be”.
Fast-forward to 2020, I began working on pangolin conservation and trade issues at the first wildlife K9 unit in Malaysia. I handled pangolin scales on a near-daily basis and yet never had the privilege of seeing a live wild pangolin in the enigmatic evergreen rainforests of my homeland.
It is an unfortunate reality that many of the efforts employed only impact when it is too late – after the pangolins have been captured, killed, packed and shipped halfway across the world. This begs the question – with another World Pangolin Day celebrated on Saturday (19 February), what can we do for pangolins before they meet such a fate?
Exacerbated by the commercialisation of traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) in the 1950s, the demand for pangolin meat and scales drove the decline of an estimated 94 per cent of pangolins in China between the 1960s and 2000s. When native pangolin populations were no longer viable for commercial-scale exploitation, focus shifted to South-East Asia, resulting in the devastation of nearly 90 per cent of populations across the region throughout the 1990s.
Soon after, West and Central Africa became prime hunting grounds to satiate the demand for pangolin scales. Nigeria, the Democratic Republic of Congo and Cameroon topped the list as origin and transit countries with the most linked seizures for pangolin scales, with more than 230 tonnes seized from 2015-19.
Yet the driver of this exploitation, China’s legal market for pangolin scales, remains unchecked. In 2020, an apparently positive step was taken regarding the removal of scales from the Chinese Pharmacopeia – the approved text listing what are considered to be the most important TCM ingredients – made waves globally.
Initially celebrated as a landmark development in the right direction for pangolin conservation, it was a short-lived, false victory – on closer review, EIA clarified that while raw scales had indeed been removed, there remains ambiguity over the use of processed scales (also known as ‘yinpian’) and patented medicinal products containing pangolin scales continue to be widely available on the market.
China’s domestic legal pangolin scale market is supplied through both Government and privately owned stockpiles. However, there is a worrying lack of transparency as no definitive data has been released on the origins, management and current volumes held. It is highly likely that the demand for scales exceeds the amount held in stockpiles, leading to the laundering of illegally obtained scales through the legal market.
Despite the Class I Protected Species status extended to pangolins in 2020, trade remains permitted for the purposes of scientific research, captive breeding, exhibition and ‘special cases’, which include traditional Chinese medicine.
EIA has been campaigning for several years for the Government of China to close its legal market by analysing the Wildlife Protection Law and providing recommendations to remove exemptions which perpetuate demand and ultimately lead to existential threats to pangolins in Africa.
EIA anticipates that 2022 will be a pivotal year for pangolin policy, with two major meetings of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Flora and Fauna (CITES) on the books: the Standing Committee in March and the Conference of Parties in November. These meetings offer vital opportunities for Parties to CITES to call for more effective and urgent action. We believe this must include the closure of legal markets which stimulate demand and contribute to the poaching and trafficking of endangered species.
The Conference of the Parties to the Convention on Biological Diversity is another opportunity for the Government of China to show real leadership, as the hosts of the meeting, now scheduled for May 2022. Closing the domestic market completely and publicly destroying all remaining stocks of pangolin scales would send a strong message.
In 2022, World Pangolin Day is more than just an occasion to appreciate and raise awareness of the plight of the world’s most unique and charismatic species.
This year presents major opportunities to make significant strides in pangolin conservation. As such, EIA’s campaigners will make the most of these seldomly afforded occasions to continue advocacy for a safer world in which pangolins can thrive without threat of peril.