Illegal wildlife trade, its consequences and why pangolins are now associated with a coronavirus
Updated: Nov 22, 2021
Pangolins are the most traded wildlife mammals on Earth. They are the only scaly mammals on Earth. Over 1 million of pangolins were trafficked over the last 10 years and around 200,000 in 2019.
Many got to know about pangolins only in 2020 when the coronavirus situation began to unravel and different publications mentioned pangolins being an intermediary species of coronavirus that causes COVID-19. More about it later, let’s first get acquainted with pangolins.
The only scaly mammals on Earth
Pangolins are endangered scaly ant-eating mammals living in Asia and Africa.
Photo credit: @alexstrachan
There are eight species of pangolins, four of them live in Africa such as black-bellied pangolin (Phataginus tetradactyla), white-bellied pangolin (Phataginus tricuspis), giant Ground pangolin (Smutsia gigantea) and temminck's Ground pangolin (Smutsia temminckii).
The other four species found in Asia-Indian pangolin (Manis crassicaudata), Philippine pangolin (Manis culionensis), Sunda pangolin (Manis javanica) and the Chinese pangolin (Manis pentadactyla).
All eight pangolin species are threatened with extinction and have been listed under Appendix I (threatened with extinction) in the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITIES) since 2016.
Pangolins live in forests and floodplain grasslands. They are vital for our ecosystem because they protect forests from termite destruction-pangolins consume termites.
Pangolins are hunted by hyenas and leopards and illegally hunted and smuggled by humans.
Why pangolins are illegally traded
Pangolin scales are made of beta keratin, which is also found in human fingernails and hair, and thought to have some curative and magical properties by some people. Their scales are used in traditional Chinese medicine.
However, there is no scientific evidence proving the curative or “magical” properties of pangolins’ scales. These dangerous beliefs that pangolin scales have magical and curative properties promote poaching and illegal trade of pangolins.
Pangolin meat is considered a delicacy in Vietnam and China, and in central and West Africa they are hunted for bushmeat too.
The skin of pangolins is used in the production of accessories such as belts, bags and boots.
There has been a commercial trade ban on pangolins since 2000, but only in 2017 a total commercial trade ban was introduced. Some poaching and illegal trade are still occurring.
Because the Asian species of pangolins are now in decline and better protected than before, there is a tendency now for poachers to snatch pangolins from Africa.
In Africa now there are different campaigns aiming at rescuing and caring for pangolins.
Pangolins on the brink of extinction and listed under Appendix I in CITIES
As mentioned above, all eight species of pangolins are endangered and have been listed under Appendix I (threatened with extinction) in the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITIES) since 2016.
Wild animal and plant trade should not threaten the species survival and CITES(the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora) is the international agreement that aims to maintain it.
Different species of plants and animals are awarded different types and levels of over-exploitation protection.
The CITES appendices are lists of animals and plants afforded different levels or types of protection from over-exploitation. CITES Appendix I contains most endangered species which are threatened with extinction, Appendix II contains species which may become endangered if the trade is not controlled.
What is the connection between pangolins and coronaviruses?
Researchers and scientists all over the world are concerned that trade in live pangolins is a risk factor in the spread of diseases. For instance, pangolins are hosts of coronaviruses and the genetic sequences of those coronaviruses in Sunda pangolins from Southeast Asia are between 88-92% similar to those of the SARS-CoV-2 causing COVID-19.
Consuming such species as food puts humans at a high risk of infecting themselves with different viruses, including possibly SAR-CoV-2 causing COVID-19.
In the article “Coronavirus: What it is and will our lives ever go back to normal?” published in February 2020 I mentioned that the position of scientists is that the most probable reservoir of coronavirus, SARS-CoV-2 causing COVID-19, is bats. Bats have an ability to host within themselves a range of coronaviruses and feel absolutely fine, and this has been known for years.
At present it is not clear whether the virus jumped from bats directly to humans or there was another intermediary species such as pangolins. To date it remains unclear.
Banning the trade of wild animals as food is not enough. Leaving loopholes in Chinese legislation and allowing the killing of wild animals for fur, as ornamental items and for the use in traditional Chinese medicine does not eliminate a public health hazard.
Not eating a pangolin because it is banned does not save a pangolin or eliminate the public health hazard because he will be killed for his scales to be used in traditional Chinese medicine which is still legal in China. Endangered species are still allowed to be hunted and their parts to be used even in ornamental items.
Banning wild animal meat consumption along with the ban on the use of wild animal parts in traditional Chinese medicine can be life-saving for the whole planet.
Coronavirus lockdown and wildlife trade
Although it is illegal to eat a pangolin in China, it was still on sale at live animal markets until the end of January 2020. As the coronavirus outbreak that started in Wuhan, China was getting worse, the Chinese government ordered live animal markets to close, and on 24 February 2020 the Chinese authorities permanently criminalized trade and consumption of live wild animals for food.
As discussed above, the loopholes in law make the trade of wild animals for fur and ornamental items in China legal and this does not eliminate a public health hazard.
On 5 June 2020 the Chinese National Forestry and Grassland Administration ordered the highest level of protection to pangolins.
The authorities did not particularly mention why this measure was introduced but it was long desired by many in light of the suspicion that pangolins could be the intermediary species from which SARS-CoV-2 causing COVID-19 jumped to humans.
Unfortunately, coronavirus lockdown since the beginning of this year has led to a spike in poaching and smuggling in places like India, Pakistan, Nepal, Africa, Columbia and Brazil. As people lose their jobs, more and more turn to illegal hunting and wildlife trade to support themselves.
You can stop the demand for wildlife products and meat
Some restaurants in certain countries mentioned above still serve wild animal meat to the tourists and customers. It is wise to avoid ordering such dishes when you are in these countries if you do not want to support the murder and extinction of wild animal species and a public health hazard that these wild animal meats pose to humans.
If you spot online wildlife products such as pangolin products, marine turtle products, tiger products, rhino horn products, elephant ivory products or the sale of endangered live animals such as certain types of turtles and reptiles, African Grey parrots, big cats and primates, please, report it to “The Coalition to end wildlife trafficking online”, and they will investigate the listing.
Please, play your role in the conservation of the endangered species of wild animals on Earth.
Deforestation, biodiversity loss and a spillover of zoonotic viruses
It is not only pangolins who are on the brink of extinction and on the list of endangered species, whose natural habitats we have encroached or/and are destroying but also bats and other species have suffered a loss of habitat as a result of deforestation.
Our encroachment on wildlife and deforestation are linked to the spread of zoonotic viruses(viruses that jump from animals to humans) including SARS, Ebola, Nipah virus and others.
Deforestation inevitably leads to the loss of biodiversity and as a result situations when viruses become prevalent arise.
For instance, the results of this study suggest that a loss of biodiversity is associated with an increase in infectious disease spread. “Our results obtained at a regional scale seem to agree with many of these previous observations made at the local level, which showed an increase in the incidence of infectious diseases with a reduction in biodiversity”.
Another study seems to confirm that preserving biodiversity should reduce the infectious disease transmission. “In principle, loss of biodiversity could either increase or decrease disease transmission. However, mounting evidence indicates that biodiversity loss frequently increases disease transmission. In contrast, areas of naturally high biodiversity may serve as a source pool for new pathogens. Overall, despite many remaining questions, current evidence indicates that preserving intact ecosystems and their endemic biodiversity should generally reduce the prevalence of infectious diseases.”
The results of the study published in 2019 suggest that agricultural land-uses exacerbate many infectious diseases in Southeast Asia. More about it can be read in the article about the Nipah virus.
In addition, this study of 2019 also links global food production to an increased incidence of infectious diseases. It does state that “In general, rural residents are most vulnerable to these increases in infectious disease, whereas consumers some distance away derive most of the benefits from increased food production”.
The future of the planet at stake
Illegal and uncontrolled trade of wildlife, including international trade of wild animals that are hosts of different viruses that are a public health hazard, does not help if we want to live without constant strains of different viruses.
Handling and consumption of wild animal meat puts humans at a risk of catching a zoonotic virus such as SARS-CoV-2 causing COVID-19, Ebola virus, Nipah virus and many more.
As climate changes, species move in an attempt to try and find new places to live in. As a result of such search for a new habitat and food, we will be more often exposed to the viruses that some of them are carriers of.
The more we encroach on the habitats of wild animals and wildlife, the more pandemics we will be suffering in the future.
Human survival now more than ever depends on how we choose to proceed with regards to nature.