Scale of survival: A look at Chinese efforts to tackle the illegal pangolin trade

Scale of survival: A look at Chinese efforts to tackle the illegal pangolin trade
Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region
Scale of survival: A look at Chinese efforts to tackle the illegal pangolin trade

Due to illegal trafficking for use in medicine and for its meat the pangolin is on the brink of extinction. While conservationists and wildlife authorities in China are leading efforts to rescue and breed the shy creature, the trade persists. 

Ranger Lu Hanrong had a captivated audience as he pointed at a nearby evergreen tree.

“I was on patrol when something round fell off the slope to the dirt road in front of me. Before I recognized it was a pangolin, it started to move slowly to the other side of the road and climbed up that tree looking for termites,” he told the group of visitors to Shiwan Dashan (A Hundred Thousand Mountains) Reserve, a remote forested region in southwestern China’s Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region near the border with Vietnam.

The pangolin is often described by wildlife NGOs as the most trafficked animal in the world. / Credit: Courtesy of Jinhua Wildlife Rescue Center.

He held up his phone showing a blurry photo of the reclusive and highly endangered creature taken in April 2018. The visitors – forestry bureau staff, an animal scientist and a member of a domestic NGO dedicated to pangolin preservation – were excited to hear Lu’s tale, since their mission during this visit in late February, was to find a proper natural habitat to potentially re-wild pangolins.

“This is the first time a wild pangolin was found in Guangxi in recent years as far as I know, especially as the pangolin is an endangered species. It’s almost never seen in the wild in China now. We tried to explore the area to find any burrows of that living pangolin, but we ran out of time,” said Zhang Siyuan from the China Biodiversity Conservation and Green Development Foundation (CBCGDF), a domestic non-profit public foundation. 

“But we can tell this is an ideal habitat for pangolins – thick soil, proper forest coverage and most importantly, plenty of ants and termites to meet the species’ unique dietary needs, but not much human activity to disturb them,” he told NewsChina in early March.

Over Exploitation

According to the most recent International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List of Threatened Species, all eight species of pangolins found in Asia and Africa are listed as Endangered or above. The Chinese pangolin (Manis pentadactyla), once prevalent in most parts of southern China, was classified as Critically Endangered in 2014 due to overconsumption of the species for medicinal purposes.

Official statistics indicate the average annual consumption of pangolin scales was around 26.6 tons during 2008-2015. In reality, the species is on the verge of extinction in the wild in China. It is often described by wildlife NGOs as the most trafficked animal in the world. 

According to the IUCN, in the decade up to 2014, more than one million pangolins across the globe were poached and illegally traded to satisfy demand from consumers in Asia, particularly in China. The critical issue led to an upgrading of all pangolin species from Appendix II to Appendix I of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) treaty in 2016, which indicates the species is threatened with extinction and is prohibited from any form of international commercial trade. China has ratified this treaty.

Pangolins are reclusive mammals with protective keratin scales covering their skin and long, sticky tongues that enable them to eat their diet of predominantly ants and termites. Throughout history, pangolin scales have been used in traditional Chinese medicine (TCM).

“Roast pangolin scales are combined with other TCM material to promote blood circulation and dispel clotting or swelling and are prescribed to women who want to stimulate lactation after giving birth or people who suffer from cancer,” Sun Xiuqing, a senior TCM doctor at Jingshun Hospital in Beijing told NewsChina.

A packet of pangolin scales weighing 10 grams sells for 180 yuan (US$26.8) at a Tong Ren Tang outlet in Beijing, March 1, 2019 / Credit: Wang Yan

According to China’s Wild Animal Protection Law, the sale and purchase of pangolins as a national second-class protected species is prohibited, except if it is used for “scientific research, captive breeding, exhibition or other special purposes such as use in TCM.”

In 2007, the then State Forestry Administration (SFA, now National Forest and Grasslands Administration) established a special marking system to regulate medicinal use. According to an SFA document, the system limits the legal use of pangolin scales to verified stockpiles from the SFA or other legal sources and is only to be used in licensed hospitals and authorized pharmaceutical companies. Sun admitted that with the tightening control and regulation, as well as the increasing price of pangolin scales, doctors use them less.

“There are some alternative substitutes for pangolin scales, but the medicinal effects are not comparable,” said Shi Yu, another doctor from Jingshun Hospital. “But the doctors in our hospital are aware of the protected status of the animal, so we rarely prescribe them.”

“According to chemical analysis, the main component of pangolin scales is keratin, similar to human fingernails. As each capsule contains such a small amount of pangolin scales, it is difficult to say that it has any medicinal effect,” stated a CBCGDF report on the over-exploitation of pangolins published in July 2016. 

At a conservation event organized by WildAid in Hong Kong in September 2018, some TCM experts urged the use of alternatives to pangolin products. 

“Many herbal medicines have very similar functions to pangolin scales,” Professor Lao Lixing, director of Hong Kong University’s School of Chinese Medicine, said in a report by the South China Morning Post.

Lao listed six substitutes including cowherb seeds and earthworms that can be used to treat certain conditions instead of pangolin scales. 

Zhang Mingxia, an assistant researcher from Xishuangbanna Tropical Botanical Garden, said that legal pangolin-scale products should be packaged with an official logo of a deer head. “If pangolin scales are not packaged when they’re sold, then it’s illegal for sure,” Zhang said.

However, during research carried out by NewsChina on the availability of pangolin scales, both at TCM pharmacies and on e-commerce websites, packs of scales without the official logo were readily available.

At an outlet of Tong Ren Tang, a major TCM pharmaceutical producer, a pack of scales with the official logo was retailing for 180 yuan (US$27) for 10 grams. More expensive were powdered scales, at 420 yuan (US$63) for 21 grams. But three retailers on e-commerce site Taobao, operated by Alibaba Group, offered unpackaged pangolin scales for around five yuan (US$0.5) per gram, a price suggesting they are illegal.

According to Liu Junzi from the International Fund for Animal Welfare, it continues to work with Alibaba to monitor and prevent the online trade of illegal wildlife products, despite the difficulty of spotting such transactions. Taobao did not respond to questions about the illegal sale of pangolin scales on its site sent by NewsChina in mid-April. 

A pharmacist surnamed Zhu from Hangzhou, capital of Zhejiang Province, disclosed to this reporter during a recent interview that hospitals purchase pangolin scales from authorized medicine wholesalers, but due to a lack of regulation, wholesalers often mix illegally sourced pangolin parts with legal ones.

“It is apparent that a huge quantity of the sold pangolin scales are illegal, since wholesalers can easily mix legal scales with trafficked pangolin parts to escape supervision,” Zhou Jinfeng, secretary-general of CBCGDF told NewsChina last month.

Wang Pei, manager of Jinhua Wildlife Rescue Center, Zhejiang Province / Credit: Wang Yan

Since 2016, the Chinese government has not published data on pangolin scale quotas. Furthermore, the national legal stockpile of pangolin scales also remains a mystery.

The National Forest and Grasslands Administration (NFGA) did not respond to NewsChina’s inquiry on the current status of stockpiles of pangolin scales and the annual allocated consumption quotas. Instead, the NFGA expressed in a written response that it vows to “continue its efforts in the registration of live pangolins and scales stockpiles in their work agenda.”

“A well-managed stockpile system would effectively prohibit the sale of illegal pangolin scales, but now it is clear that the NFGA does not have control over the stockpile, so it cannot give us any statistics on that,” Zhou said. 

Meanwhile, international trafficking of pangolins continues. In 2018 alone, according to the CBCGDF, seizures of illegally traded pangolin scales from six domestic customs offices including Shenzhen, Nanning, Shanghai, Jiangmen, Guangdong and Hong Kong, amounted to 38.14 tons, enough to account for at least 60,000 pangolins. 

Captive Breeding

An updated version of China’s Wildlife Protection Law in 2017 clearly prohibits the consumption of pangolin meat and the sale of illegally sourced scales. There is a constant battle by wildlife authorities to crack down on the trade in pangolins.

In late 2018, a year-long investigation resulted in police from Central China’s Hunan Province identifying a large pangolin trafficking ring involving over 200 suspects. According to the Hunan Provincial Forestry Bureau, “The pangolins were trafficked into Guangxi from overseas, and then sold to suspects in Guangdong Province, from where they were distributed to other parts of China.”

Arrests were made in six southern provinces and regions, including Hunan, Guangdong, Fujian, Jiangxi, Hainan and Guangxi. According to China’s Wildlife Protection Law, people involved in the trade in endangered wild animals face more than 10 years in prison, plus fines.

As China cracks down on the illegal trafficking of pangolin meat and scales, surviving pangolins found by authorities are sent to rescue centers. Despite decades of efforts, however, pangolins do not adapt well to life in captivity.

“Captive breeding of pangolins started as early as the 1980s in China, yet without significant success. I started my pangolin breeding research in 2010, and they only survive an average of two to three years in human care,” a domestic pangolin expert who spoke on condition of anonymity told NewsChina during a telephone interview. In the wild, a pangolin can live up to 20 years.

Although a proper environment with artificial food allows rescued pangolins to survive, a so-far unidentified gastrointestinal disease or pneumonia often results in their death within a few months or at most a few years.

“So far there are no successful conservation breeding programs for pangolins, and so we need further scientific research for the purpose of pangolin species conservation,” the expert said.

Due to the high mortality rate, successful captive breeding remains elusive. At the Jinhua Wildlife Rescue Center in Zhejiang Province, former keeper Xiao Chen said she really missed two pangolins, Rou Rou (meaty) and Tuan Tuan (round) she had taken care of for several months.

“When I first saw them in December 2017, they would eat a prepared diet by themselves,” Xiao said. “They were very timid and would stop and sniff when you’d approach them.” She adored the creatures, and when the weather was warm, she and the other staff would take them to forage around in the nearby clumps of bamboo.

“They liked to dig in the soil, they would dig for a while before coming up and looking at you. I didn’t even mind getting bitten by mosquitoes there because I wanted them to enjoy nature as long as they wanted.”

But in April 2018, the two pangolins suddenly fell ill and died. Xiao Chen cried for two days and left the job with a broken heart. “Although we didn’t know why they died, I still felt so responsible for not being capable or professional enough. Otherwise, I might have saved their lives,” said Xiao.

Xiao Chen (left) and her colleague at Jinhua Wildlife Rescue Center along with two rescued Chinese pangolins Rou Rou and Tuan Tuan on March 5, 2018 / Credit: Courtesy of Jinhua Wildlife Rescue Center. 

A written record from the rescue center indicates that the two pangolins, both found by local residents, died 240 days and 206 days after their rescue.

Since 2017, forestry authorities have sent all 12 pangolins found in Zhejiang Province to Jinhua for rescue and breeding.

But in mid-March, when NewsChina arrived at the rescue center located inside Jinhua Zoo, there were only two pangolins still living, one a wounded Chinese pangolin rescued in July 2018 and the other a Sunda pangolin sent over in late January. They were kept in a small house with air conditioning and heating to keep a stable temperature of around 25-degrees Celsius. Wang Pei, manager of the rescue center, prepares a diet of dried ants, bee larvae and other protein and vitamins. 

“At first, I tried to feed them their familiar diet of ants and termites so they could acclimatize to the new environment, and then I slowly added other ingredients,” Wang said. With careful nursing, a wound on the Chinese pangolin’s rear leg has recovered. Meng Haifeng, curator of Jinhua Zoo, said that they had found suppliers of raw termites.

“We are learning gradually how to take care of them. Each rescued pangolin has a unique temperament, so you need to know that well,” Wang said, admitting that the survival rate of rescued, wounded pangolins has been low during the two years he’s been trying to rear them.

But rescued Chinese pangolins normally live longer than Sunda pangolins due to their different health conditions.

“Most recused rescued Sunda pangolin were force-fed with water and huge amounts of flour to increase their weight. Many of the rescued Sunda pangolins die soon after they get to the center,” Wang said.

Wang said that it was not possible for a single rescue center to successfully breed endangered pangolin species, but if China were to put the same amount of effort in as it has with the giant panda, there would be progress.

“These pangolins are naturally friendly, and the key to making them approachable depends on whether you love them when you take care of them,” Wang said.

Xie Chungang from the Jinhua Forestry Bureau Wildlife Protection Department said that Zhejiang provincial and local city governments are planning to invest 4.8 million yuan (US$718,358) to set up an open, artificial habitat covering 2,000 square meters at Jinhua Zoo as the next step to improving living conditions for rescued pangolins. 

“After we achieve the successful rescue and breeding of pangolins, our ambition is to re-wild healthy ones in the long term,” Xie said. “But right now, we are just taking baby steps to ensure their survival.”

Due to the low survival rate and high cost, pangolin breeding and farming, which used to be prevalent in China’s southern provinces, has dwindled in recent years. 

Wu Shibao is a professor at the School of Life Sciences at South China Normal University and one of the authors of an unpublished research paper guiding and regulating practitioners’ breeding activities of pangolins written by more than 20 international experts from the IUCN Pangolin Specialist Group.

“Captive breeding should only be performed when it is good for preservation of the species, while the commercial utilization and farming of pangolins should be restricted,” Wu said. “But there is still hope to revive the Chinese pangolin before it is functionally extinct.”

Two pangolins pictured at the Jinhua Wildlife Rescue Center in Zhejiang Province.

Re-wild Attempt

Both inside China and internationally, some conservationists advocate for the re-wilding of healthy pangolins into natural habitats.

In late January, the NFGA organized a meeting inviting forestry department representatives from nine southern provinces in China where pangolins used to reside to discuss future preservation measures. Zhang Siyuan from CBCGDF, who participated in the meeting as an observer, told this reporter that during the meeting the Guangxi Forestry Bureau revealed a plan to re-wild two healthy Chinese pangolins.

But actions on the ground have not proven significant.

After the expert group went to the reserve in late February, the scene of ranger Lu’s pangolin sighting, authorities in Guangxi convened a conference on March 15 in the provincial capital Nanning to discuss possible procedures and evaluate potential sites.

“The discussion was not fruitful, and there was no timeline for the release of the two pangolins,” Zhang said after the conference. “Since Guangxi hasn’t been successful in its pangolin breeding attempts, which already resulted in the deaths of a large number of rescued

pangolins, we are concerned about the future survival of the live pangolins in its provincial rescue center.”

From the pangolin expert point of view, re-wilding also requires preparation and should not be done hastily. 

Despite successful captive breeding of pangolins at Taipei Zoo over the previous decade, Professor Ching-Min Sun from the National Pingtung University of Science and Technology, Taiwan, told NewsChina that rescued pangolins or their offspring from Taipei Zoo have never been released. Professor Wu Shibao also cautioned that more research should be done before real rewilding attempts take place.

There is consensus from both domestic researchers and conservationists on calling for urgent, increased preservation efforts and a complete prohibition of the use of pangolin scales for TCM, imitating the ban on tiger bones and rhino horn adopted as early as 1993.

The NFGA did not respond to NewsChina’s repeated inquiries on when pangolin scales would be removed from the Pharmacopoeia of China and be banned from any medicinal use. A source from the NFGA only admitted to this reporter in March that a reclassification of the pangolins’ protected status in China from a Class II to a Class I Key Protected Species will be made within the year.

“I hope there will be a designated reserve or national park for pangolins in China someday, and that I can see pangolins in the wild,” said Zhang Siyuan. “This is a dream of mine.” 

Reporting for this story was supported by a special grant from Internews’ Earth Journalism Network’s Asia-Pacific project. A Chinese-language version appears online here

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