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In early June, it was widely reported that the Chinese government had banned pangolin scales in traditional Chinese medicine (TCM), and that all pangolin species now had the highest level of protection within China. This news grabbed headlines around the world, and conservationists hailed the move as a positive step toward halting the illegal pangolin trade. But some experts say this celebration was premature.

The team at the Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA) recently obtained a copy of China’s 2020 pharmacopoeia, a reference book for TCM practitioners, and found that while pangolin scales had been removed from the list of raw ingredients, pangolin scales were still listed as a key ingredient in various patent medicines.

“We were not surprised to learn that pangolin scales remained in the 2020 pharmacopoeia,” Chris Hamley, senior pangolin campaigner at EIA, told Mongabay. “In fact we had warned soon after the reports started to appear in the international media on 9 June that China’s widely publicized pangolin protections might not mean a total ban on their use in traditional Chinese medicine. This has happened before with leopard bone and bear bile — both were removed as a key ingredient but maintained as ingredients in patent medicine formulations.”

EIA identified eight medicines in the 2020 pharmacopoeia that contain pangolin scales, including Zaizao Wan, a pill said to aid blood circulation, and Awei Huapi Gao, a medicine used to treat abdominal pain. While patent medicines are processed, ready-made products, Hamley said that licensed hospitals and pharmaceutical companies can legally obtain pangolin scales to produce and sell these medicines.

There are also 72 additional TCM products containing pangolin scales that aren’t listed in the 2020 pharmacopoeia, but that can still be legally sold within China, Hamley said.

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pangolin trade
A page from China’s 2020 pharmacopoeia that shows a list of approved ingredients for the patent medicine, Awei Huapi Gao. The characters circled read “pangolin.” Image by EIA.

Hamley says the trade may be continuing based on an exemption in Article 27 of China’s Wildlife Protection Law, which specifies that protected wildlife can be sold, purchased and utilized for scientific research, captive breeding, public exhibition or performances, heritage conservation, and other special purposes.

“There are unlikely to be any major changes in demand for pangolin scales,” Hamley said. “The drivers of demand associated with the use of pangolin scales in TCM in China still remain. With licenced companies and hospitals still able to legally produce TCM medicines containing pangolin scales based on formulae in the pharmacopoeia and other national lists, there will continue to be demand for raw pangolin scales from the TCM industry.”

EIA isn’t the only organization to point out the contradictory nature of China’s policy on pangolin scales. TRAFFIC, an NGO that monitors the illegal trade of wild animals and plants, also said pangolin scales were still being promoted as medicinal ingredients.

“The situation is not clear-cut — medicinal use of pangolins is no longer endorsed by the main text of the TCM pharmacopoeia, but pangolin scales are still included in some of the prescriptions listed in the Annex of the printed publication,” TRAFFIC wrote in a tweet to BBC News after it published an article on China’s removal of pangolins from TCM.

There are also concerns about the current government-held stockpiles of pangolin scales, which can be legally used at approximately 700 licensed hospitals and to produce about 70 patented medicines, according to TRAFFIC. Between 2008 and 2015, about 26.6 tons of pangolin scales were used each year. However, it’s not known how many scales are currently in these stockpiles, or the exact source of these stockpiles, and conservationists are worried that pangolin scales will be illegally laundered into these stockpiles if the system isn’t properly managed.

“[A]t the very least, every province needs to have a transparent and standardized system to manage pangolin stockpiles to prevent any laundering of illegally sourced pangolin parts into legal channels,” Richard Thomas of TRAFFIC told Mongabay. “As we have seen in recent years, a number of very large-scale pangolin seizures have been made by Chinese customs, so clearly there is ongoing illegal supply of pangolin products that needs to be shut down. There’s a clear need for wildlife protection management departments to co-operate with the traditional Chinese medicine sector to eliminate potential illegal and unsustainable use of pangolin products.”

The eight species of pangolins are the most widely trafficked animal in the world, with more than a million of these animals poached and illegally traded since the year 2000. In 2016, CITES, an international treaty that protects endangered plants and animals, uplisted pangolins to Appendix I, which bans all international trade. However, CITES regulations do not apply to any domestic trade of the species.

Hamley said the illegal trade of pangolin scales has not slowed down in recent weeks, despite the apparent removal of pangolin scales from pharmacopoeia.

“EIA is currently monitoring the trans-national trafficking and trade of pangolin scales by criminal networks, and we can confirm that large, multiple ton shipments of pangolin scales continue to be trafficked from Africa to southeast Asia for onward shipment into China,” Hamley said. “COVID-19 has had some logistical consequences that have slowed down wildlife trafficking activity, but traffickers in Africa continue to source pangolin scales in significant quantities for export to Asia.”

UPDATE 06/28/2020: In response to this article, a spokesperson for China Biodiversity Conservation and Green Development Foundation (CBCGDF) stated that there is currently no legal procedure to stop the production of patent medicines, which are owned and protected by various companies, and that the Chinese government has done its best to remove pangolins from TCM.

Featured image by: USAID Asia 

This article was originally published on Mongabay, written by Elizabeth Claire Alberts, and is republished here as part of an editorial partnership with Earth.Org. 


A positive side effect of the COVID-19 pandemic- besides reduced emissions– is the focus and response to the illegal wildlife trade, especially in China, which has announced a permanent ban on the trade and consumption of wild animals, including in wet markets, like the ones at the centre of the outbreak in Wuhan. International conservationists greeted this act as a vital step, but what do we have to be aware of now?

Wildlife Industry in China

For centuries, the cultural roots associated with consuming wild animals have run deep in China. They are used in multiple industries, ranging from food to traditional Chinese medicine, and from fur production to research in laboratories. 

The wildlife-eating culture can be found particularly in the southern part of China. According to China Dialogue, some residents of Guangdong province in South China like to drink a bowl of piping hot snake soup for breakfast to ward off the cold in winter. Similarly, Cantonese people believe that snake meat can treat illness. Over the past thirty years, the consumption of exotic species such as pangolins, bears and migratory birds has become a status symbol

Aside from meat, wildlife is used in Chinese medicine to treat human ailments. For instance, some people believe that pangolin scales can encourage breast-feeding for lactating mothers, improve poor circulation, cure arthritis and cancer, and even boost male vitality, despite a lack of scientific evidence of their medicinal merit. 

There is also a demand for fur products which is satisfied through the illegal wildlife trade. According to International Fur Federation data, retail sales of fur in China are worth about US$17 billion per year. China produces the most profitable wild animal furs using mink, fox and raccoon, among others.

The wildlife industry feeds a lot of Chinese families. Wildlife farming is a crucial source of income for some developing places like Guangxi and Guizhou. A government-sponsored report released by The Chinese Academy of Engineering in 2017 revealed that the wildlife sector is valued at RMB 520 billion, approximately US $74 billion, employing at least 14 million people. 

Why Wildlife Trade is Harmful

This lucrative industry, however, has resulted in environmental problems such as threats to local ecosystems and biodiversity loss. Not only do species suffer from inhumane practices and possible extinction, the illegal wildlife trade poses threats to public health. 

While we still need time to unravel the timeline and initial cause of the COVID-19 epidemic, some researchers believe that the virus jumped from a market animal to humans, then infected more people through mutation. At the time of going to print, the disease has infected nearly 2 million people and caused more than 100 000 deaths globally.

China’s Ban on Wildlife Trade

In late February, the Standing Committee of the 13th National People’s Congress (NPC) announced its fast-tracked decision to comprehensively prohibit illegal trade, eliminate the bad habits of wild animal consumption and protect people’s health and safety, as part of efforts to curb the coronavirus outbreak.

According to China Daily, the prohibition included the hunting, trading, transport and consumption of wildlife, which included wildlife protected by the law and other non-aquatic animals of ecological, scientific and social value. 

Since the virus hit, about 20 000 wildlife farms have been closed down in China or put under quarantine.

Possible Challenges and Loopholes

While international conservationists have greeted this decision as ‘a big step in the right direction’, some experts have warned against a possible loophole of the law.

China’s decision does not restrict fur trade, medicine or research, according to an analysis by the Wildlife Conservation Society. This could create a potential loophole for traffickers to exploit non-food exemptions in wildlife animal trade. Wildlife campaigner Aron White commented that there was a risk of wildlife being sold for medicine, and then trafficked for food.

Daniel Challender, a researcher from the University of Oxford, who studies the pangolin trade, said the decision appears to exempt the breeding of pangolins for traditional Chinese medicinal purposes. 

Zhou Ke, a professor on environmental and resources law at Renmin University, told China Central Television that the guiding principles in amending the law on protecting wildlife need a change, and that public health safety ought to be written into the law.

The new ban, however, does not make it clear how monitoring will be undertaken or the penalties for inadequate protection of exotic animals.

Individual Action to Protect Wildlife

Aside from this law, mass education on wildlife protection is also required to cease the consumption and trade, whether for meat eating, medicinal treatment or fur. The entire world is now facing public health risks, and yet, it is hard to mitigate or solve epidemic issues. Comprehensive education to stigmatise wildlife consumption is one of the few ways to influence people who live with deep-rooted cultural beliefs.

Additionally, a simple action that consumers can make is to stop purchasing wildlife animals for food, health treatment or luxury fashion.

Featured image by: Dan Bennett

Read Earth.Org’s previous post on this topic, “UN Biodiversity Chief Calls for a Permanent Ban on Wildlife Markets”.

The UN’s biodiversity chief has called for a global ban on wildlife markets- such as the one in Wuhan, China, believed to be the starting point of the COVID-19 outbreak- to prevent future pandemics. China has announced the permanent ban of the consumption and trade of certain wildlife, but what are the loopholes that can be exploited?

Elizabeth Maruma Mrema, the acting executive secretary of the UN Convention on Biological Diversity, said that banning ‘wet markets’ that sell live and dead animals for human consumption would help to prevent future pandemics. 

Using the examples of Ebola in west-central Africa and the Nipah virus in east Asia, Mrema said that there were clear links between anthropogenic destruction of nature and new human illnesses, however she cautioned against using a reactionary approach to the pandemic. 

She says, “The message we are getting is if we don’t take care of nature, it will take care of us. It would be good to ban the live animal markets as China has done and some countries. But we should also remember you have communities, particularly from low-income rural areas, particularly in Africa, which are dependent on wild animals to sustain the livelihoods of millions of people. So unless we get alternatives for these communities, there might be a danger of opening up illegal trade in wild animals which currently is already leading us to the brink of extinction for some species.”

As the coronavirus has spread around the world, there has been an increased focus on how humanity’s destruction of nature creates conditions for new zoonotic diseases to spread. Two thirds of emerging infections and diseases now come from wildlife. 

The outbreak of the Nipah virus in Malaysia in the late 1990s is believed to have been the result of forest fires, deforestation and drought which caused fruit bats, the carriers of the virus, to move from the forests into peat farms. It infected the farmers, and then spread. 

Mrema says, “Biodiversity loss is becoming a big driver in the emergence of some of these viruses. Large-scale deforestation, habitat degradation and fragmentation, agriculture intensification, our food system, trade in species and plants, anthropogenic climate change- all these are drivers of biodiversity loss and also drivers of new diseases.” 

In early March, China announced the permanent ban on wildlife trade and consumption amid the COVID-19 pandemic that has swept the globe, infecting at least a million people and killing tens of thousands. The pandemic has been linked to pangolins, which are illegally traded around Asia for its supposed medicinal qualities. 

This shutdown of the US$74 billion industry follows the temporary ban introduced in January, which was initially expected to continue until the authorities declared the pandemic as under control.

Chinese Cities Follow Suit

The Chinese city of Shenzhen recently announced that it would ban the eating of dogs and cats in the wake of the virus. The law is set to come into effect on May 1, and makes Shenzhen the first city in China to ban the consumption of animals raised as pets. About 30 million dogs are killed each year across Asia for meat. 

The new rule, called “The Shenzhen Special Economic Region Regulation on a Comprehensive Ban on the Consumption of Wild Animals,” also permanently bans the consumption, breeding and sale of wildlife- such as snakes, lizards and other wild animals- for people to eat in the city. Those that are convicted of contravening the rule will be subjected to a fine of 30 times the wild animal’s value, if the animal’s value is above USD1 400.  

Activists are hoping that this rule will inspire other governments to impose similar regulations, but worry that these regulations will push the trade underground.

What About Loopholes? 

The national ban does not cover aquatic animals, livestock or poultry, nor does it ban the use of wild animals for scientific and medical purposes, as well as fur. These facilities may continue, although their management will supposedly be strengthened. 

Activists are worried that while the ban in China is a step in the right direction, it provides opportunities for traffickers to take advantage of these loopholes. 

There are concerns that the law may create a false sense of accomplishment. Certainly, a 2015 ban on live poultry in Guangzhou had only a limited effect, and in late 2019, Chinese authorities in Zhejiang province seized more than 10 000kg of pangolin scales, and discovered that the same group had smuggled in some 12 500kgs of scales the previous year. 

David Olsen, director of conservation at WWF-Hong Kong, says, “These loopholes are pretty significant and could be used to maintain some level of wildlife trade, which then maintains the preconditions for the emergence of another disease.”

Another important aspect of combating the trade in China will be changing the country’s licensing system, which until the recent ban had allowed 54 species of wildlife and the meat and animal parts to be legally raised, sold and traded. 

These legal licenses allow some leeway for loopholes that are often at odds with the Convention of International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES), of which China is a signatory. The licenses have also become a commodity that can be sold; people catch wildlife from the wild and then launder them through the legal licensed market. 

The Online Community Steps In

In the first month of the temporary ban, e-commerce platforms aided in the removal, deletion or blocking of information pertaining to 140 000 wildlife products from bushmeat to animal parts used in traditional Chinese medicine, as well as hunting tools such as bird-catching nets and wildlife snares and traps, and closed down about 17 000 accounts associated with the trade.

Meanwhile, China’s top e-commerce and express delivery operators are under pressure from the government and wildlife activists to help enforce the ban. 

The Chinese Ministry of Transport has ordered express delivery companies to stop transporting live animals and other wildlife products. The ministry has also been tasked with inspecting packages more stringently before they are shipped in an effort to avoid traffickers illegally smuggling animals. 

Richard Thomas, a spokesman for wildlife monitoring group, TRAFFIC, says that far more concerning than the legality surrounding the wildlife trade itself are the conditions surrounding the trade which may have caused diseases like SARS, Ebola and now the COVID-19 virus. 

“Worldwide governments face a dilemma here: if you ban trade, you risk pushing it underground, where those dangerous conditions are likely to be prevalent- and realistically it’s just a matter of time before the next zoonotic disease emerges.”

Thomas adds, “If you manage legal trade properly, the risk of disease emergence should be mitigated but it needs to be thoroughly monitored and regulated.” 

However, conservation groups are calling for the government to give firms more clarity over what to target when they discover any potentially illegal activity. 

Critics say that there isn’t regulation specifying the responsibility of online platforms. Zhou Jinfeng, head of the China Biodiversity Conservation and Green Development Foundation, says, “If they don’t play their role and are not able to step up their monitoring mechanisms, stopping online wildlife will be difficult.” Jinfeng also calls for the implementation of a corporate social credit system to reward or punish e-commerce companies for their part in combating the illegal wildlife trade. 

Others call for reforms to help online platforms know exactly what is legal or prohibited. It is also crucial to be able to track and trace the sale of all wildlife. 

Where to From Here?

Most Chinese people, especially the younger generation, support bans on wildlife consumption. To ensure that the rest of society complies, state media should be deployed to educate the masses on the dangers of consuming wild animals to dispel the superstitions associated with the consumption. 

The wildlife trade, including for non-food uses, needs to be combated with stricter law enforcement, harsher penalties and public education on the dangers of consuming wild animals. On a consumer level, less animal products should be consumed to avoid the perpetuation of the cruel practices associated with the trade. Certainly, legal bans are only as effective as the mechanisms in place to uphold them. 

Featured image by: Jnncreatives

Read Earth.Org’s second article on this topic, “China Bans Wildlife Trade: Will it Work?

Pangolins are the world’s most trafficked mammals, but they remain relatively unknown; for most, the thought of wildlife crime instead brings to mind ivory and rhino horns. 

An animal ranging from the size of a common house cat to a medium-sized dog, but covered in hundreds of scales and found only in Asia and Sub-Saharan Africa, their defence of rolling up into a ball of hardy scales is aptly designed for protection against their natural predators- big cats. But this defence mechanism is far from a deterrent for humans. All eight species of pangolins are at risk of extinction, driven by the thriving illegal trade of its scales and meat used in traditional Asian medicine and dishes.

The illegal wildlife trade has popular trafficking routes that span across the globe, many of which use Hong Kong as an entry point into China. In the four-year period between 2013-2017, the Hong Kong Customs and Excise Department found over 43 metric tonnes of pangolin scales and carcasses. The seizure is estimated to represent 96,330 pangolins at an estimated market value of HK$93.9 million.

All pangolin species have been legally protected by an international agreement between governments in 2016 as part of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES), aiming to ensure the trade of the animal doesn’t threaten its survival.

Despite the ban, the latest seizure in January 2019 by the Hong Kong authorities was record high with over eight tonnes of pangolin scales and two tonnes of elephant tusks discovered in the same shipping container, with an estimated combined market value of about HK$62 million.

Why are pangolins trafficked?

Associate Professor at Hong Kong University (HKU) Amanda Whitfort explains that all eight species of pangolin are in high demand for traditional Chinese medicine in China. “Hong Kong is the fifth busiest container port in the world and only about 1% of our containers are inspected. Given the low risk of detection it is not surprising that we are used by traffickers seeking an easy gateway to China.”

Currently, wildlife trafficking offences are listed under legislation aimed to protect endangered species of animals and plants in Hong Kong: Cap.586. However, many have pushed for it to be now listed as under the Organised and Serious Crime Ordinance (OSCO). Whitfort says that this legislation change would allow investigators to use more coercive powers when investigating wildlife crime operations.

Alexandra Andersson, founder of the conservation group Hong Kong for Pangolins, also stresses the importance of listing wildlife offences under OSCO, saying that the Hong Kong government needs to “increase associated penalties, close various loopholes in the law, and work with forensic scientists to develop tools to detect laundering.”

In traditional Chinese medicine, some practitioners prescribe pangolin scales to cure ailments from rheumatism, soreness and itchiness to cancer and impotence. However, activists like Andersson argue that scales are proven to be made of keratin, the substance of human fingernails.

In 2008 a global NGO focused on illegal wildlife trade, TRAFFIC, found that pangolin scale alternatives include Wang Bu Lui Xing (Vaccaraie semen) and dried seeds of cowherb (Vaccaria segetalis). Within the study it was found that the medicinal effects of both alternatives were classed as being equally as effective as pangolin scales.

Whitfort says that many traditional Chinese medicine practitioners publicly support the use of alternatives to endangered species, though it is evident that pangolin products are still in high demand both for its scales and its meat. “No species should go extinct for traditional Chinese medicine,” says Whitfort.

pangolin: most trafficked mammal in the world
Hong Kong customs seize a large shipment of Pangolin Scales transiting via the port city destined to the Chinese market. By Alex Hofford for WildAid

Alarmingly, there is a substantial lack of both knowledge and awareness regarding the pangolin and its legality. A survey of 1000 Hong Kong residents completed by Hong Kong for Pangolins, the Humane Society International and HKU found that 27.1% of the residents surveyed did not know if it was legal to consume pangolin meat or believed it was legal (it is illegal), and nearly half of those surveyed were confused about the legality of the pangolin scale consumption.

In a separate study WildAid also discovered that in China pangolin meat was largely consumed because it is a “expensive status symbol” and an “exotic wild animal”, even though 74% of respondents believed consuming pangolin meat is illegal.

The steep decline in global pangolin numbers has led to some scientists advocating for the captive breeding of pangolins, but studies shows they are not suited to living in captivity, with most wild individuals dying within 200 days. The Kadoorie Farm & Botanic Garden (KFBG) in Hong Kong undertakes species conservation and ecosystem restoration, in doing so they cared for a small number of pangolins before successfully releasing them back into the wild in Hong Kong.

KFBG believes that Hong Kong is in a position to play a critical role in the conservation of pangolins globally saying “the role our territory plays as a smuggling route used to funnel globally poached pangolin products to the main consumers is significant. Clamping down on illegal pangolin smuggling in Hong Kong could have a global scale effect.”

Pressure to curb illegal wildlife trade  is growing fast. Academics and activists alike say that Hong Kong’s wildlife offences need to be moved from Cap.586 to OSCO if legislation and enforcement mechanisms are to be made more effective in combating  illegal pangolin trade.

“Eventually we will have the correct laws,” Whitfort says. “Unfortunately, for some species, those laws will come too late.”

Featured photo by sk8mama/ Flickr (Licence)

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