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ABIDJAN, COTE D’IVOIRE, 28 AUGUST 2018: An undercover officer from a unit dedicated to Trans-national crime holds a giant pangolin exoskeleton discovered in a raid on a house in Abidjan. The raid netted two Vietnamese traffickers with 600 kgs of Pangolin scales as well as 23 ivory tusks from Forest Elephant. A Chinese man in the house was arrested for guns, drugs and is suspected of human trafficking based on document and photographs of 14 Ivorian women. The giant pangolin is a very highly endangered animal, on the red list for CITES appendix one. This exoskeleton and the tail of another larger giant pangolin were discovered in the locked room of the Chinese owner of the house, a traditonal Chinese doctor. (Photo by Brent Stirton/Getty Images)
The pangolin bites back

The pangolin bites back

ABIDJAN, COTE D’IVOIRE, 28 AUGUST 2018: An undercover officer from a unit dedicated to Trans-national crime holds a giant pangolin exoskeleton discovered in a raid on a house in Abidjan. The raid netted two Vietnamese traffickers with 600 kgs of Pangolin scales as well as 23 ivory tusks from Forest Elephant. A Chinese man in the house was arrested for guns, drugs and is suspected of human trafficking based on document and photographs of 14 Ivorian women. The giant pangolin is a very highly endangered animal, on the red list for CITES appendix one. This exoskeleton and the tail of another larger giant pangolin were discovered in the locked room of the Chinese owner of the house, a traditonal Chinese doctor. (Photo by Brent Stirton/Getty Images)

Mankind’s abuse of this little mammal may have brought us some rough justice, writes Simon Barnes

Pangolins look like leather artichokes. Given a choice, they have their being in obscurity: the darkness of night, the tops of tall trees and the bottoms of deep burrows. In Chinese legend a pangolin can burrow through mountains and travel the whole world underground. 

But they haven’t been given a choice. They are the world’s most trafficked animals. Example: in April 2019 Singapore authorities seized two separate cargoes, each of nearly 13 tonnes of pangolin scales, representing in total 38,000 dead pangolins. 

But the world’s fascination for this funky little mammal has come at a price. And the price in question is Covid-19. It’s possible – according to some scientists, highly probable – that the virus reached humanity by way of the pangolin. By way of pangolins caught and illegally trafficked. 

The pangolin is just one more victim of humanity’s indiscriminate plundering of nature – except that this time nature and the pangolin have had some measure of revenge. As I write, the virus has infected 480 million people and killed 6 million; the total cost to the world of Covid-19 has been estimated at $12.5 trillion. 

It seems that the tunnelling pangolin – fodio ergo sum, I dig therefore I am – has undermined the world. 

Apart from another pangolin, there’s nothing like a pangolin. They are so radically different from everything else that lives that they have their own order. We humans are keen on the idea of our uniqueness, but we share the order of primates with 500 other species; the order Pholidota contains only eight species of pangolins, four from Africa and four from Asia. 

Their eightfold uniqueness is obvious to all. Their bodies are covered in scales. These are for protection: a pangolin can roll into a ball of impenetrable tightness, face tucked neatly under scaly tail, and not even a lion can get through. 

But pangolins prefer to keep out of sight, underground or high in trees, where they hunt down ants and termites with improbably long tongues. In the larger species the tongue can extend more than 40cm, with a diameter of only 0.5cm. It’s coated in sticky saliva and, disconcertingly, is attached to the animal near its pelvis. 

All this sounds as if pangolins are related to anteaters, but that’s not the case. The two groups have similar lifestyles but got there by different evolutionary routes; what’s called a convergence. In fact, and counterintuitively, they are more closely related to the order Carnivora (cats and dogs) than any other group of mammals. 

Pangolins are night-lovers with poor vision, but excellent hearing and smell. Some species walk on their wrists, keeping their powerful front claws doubled up like a Swiss army knife; some can walk a short way on two legs; and rather unexpectedly, all eight species are good swimmers. And they can dig like you wouldn’t believe. They’ve been known to excavate chambers big enough for a human to stand up in. 

Mong La, Myanmar
Markets near Myanmar’s border with China have been a source of pangolins for the Chinese market

The species vary in size, the smallest about that of a domestic cat, the largest a collie. They swallow small stones – technically gastroliths – which help them to grind down the bodies of the ants. They are solitary, coming together only to mate, but the young ones stay with their mothers for a couple of years, at first clinging to their mother’s tail or riding on her back. 

This charming habit apart, they’re not creatures to make the highlights reel of wildlife documentaries, and not one you are likely to come across by chance. In normal circumstances they are not part of our world in any but the ecological sense. 

It’s the scales that make them thrillingly different; irresistibly different. They are clearly mammals like us, like our favoured pets, like many of the animals we favour for food: homely and humdrum – and yet there is something other-worldly about them, something really rather special. 

They’re not scaly like snakes, who operate under a continuous sheet of scales that can be shed. A pangolin is covered in separate scales, each one made of keratin, the same stuff that makes feathers, the horns of rhinoceros and your own fingernails. In other words the scales are effectively dead, but can transmit feeling through the point of attachment. And it’s the pangolin’s great misfortune that its scales are considered to possess remarkable curative properties by the practitioners of traditional Chinese medicine (TCM). 

A Chinese name for pangolin is chuan shan jia: scales that penetrate the mountain. The fancy is that the pangolin can get through any obstruction. It follows that its scales, when ingested, should have a similar property of removing obstacles. It is accepted that pangolin scales can dissolve blood clots and generally promote the circulation of the blood; they are also used to improve lactation. 

The Chinese modernisers of the early 20th Century were keen to get rid of TCM, seeing it as backward and unscientific. But this ancient tradition has been remarkably persistent and in the 1950s there were attempts to integrate Western medicine with TCM. Then came the Cultural Revolution of the 60s, and TCM was eagerly promoted. It was and is both cheap and popular, though not all its remedies are cheap, and some are available only to the elite. 

After the opening-up of relations between China and the US in 1972 Chinese approaches to health were taken up in the West: herbal remedies, acupuncture, tai-chi. TCM is not a unified system. It comprises many theories, some opposed to each other. It has elements from folk beliefs and Confucianism. It takes in the theory of yin and yang; the significance of dualities, like light and dark. It recognises five elements: wood, fire, earth, metal and water. It is full of ideas about herbal remedies, diet, exercise and lifestyle. 

At its core is the belief that your vital energy – your chi – runs through your body along channels called meridians. Nature, the scientific journal, said that TCM was “fraught with pseudoscience”. We can interpret that in less pejorative terms by saying that it depends as much on belief as it does on empirical learning: like religion. 

We can compare TCM to the discredited Western pseudoscience, the doctrine of signatures: if a plant looks like a body part it must have been put there to cure ailments of that body part (lungwort, liverwort etc). An 18th-century clergyman, Edward Stone, was taking a walk while suffering from ague or fever. Ague is associated with wet places, so are willows. Stone reasoned that the tree was put there to cure ague. He nibbled a piece of willow bark, and found relief. Why? Because willows contain salicylic acid. This was later synthesised. We know it today as aspirin. 

In other words, Stone found the right cure for the wrong reason. The doctrine of signatures is quite exploded but some remedies discovered by its logic are genuinely effective. The same principle operates in TCM. I remember a furious argument from my time in Hong Kong. One person held that TCM was useless and absurd, the other that it was full of good things that Westerners discounted at their peril. The person taking the anti line was Chinese, his opponent American. 

Note that placebos can be effective even when the patient knows the medication is inert. The so-called open-label placebo – coming, for example, with the statement “this is a placebo” – has been known to effect cures, genuinely reducing depression and perception of pain. Proponents say the process establishes a stronger contact between body and mind.

The Chinese Handbook of Traditional Drugs was compiled in 1941 and lists 517 drugs, of which 45 come from animals and 30 from minerals. The rest are plants and fungi. (Western medicines with their origins in plants also include digoxin for heart problems, morphine, quinine and cocaine.) 

But problems come from a widespread fascination with remedies derived from animal parts and the persistent belief in their near-miraculous potency. There are 12,000 bears legally farmed in China, kept alive so that bile can be removed from their bodies at regular intervals. This is facilitated by a permanent hole in the abdomen. I have witnessed the removal of the gallbladders of living snakes in TCM shops. 

Surabaya, Indonesia
Police found more than 650 dead pangolins hidden in freezers in a Java home in 2016

TCM plays a major part in a massive worldwide illegal trade in animal parts; wildlife traffic (including conflict timber) is the world’s third largest illegal trade after drugs and arms. All five species of rhino are threatened with extinction because of the demand for their horns – not as an aphrodisiac, as is popularly supposed, but because the horn is supposed to thin the blood and so prevent heart attacks and stroke. In Vietnam rhino horn is used by the wealthy as a hangover cure. 

Clearly the expense and rarity of these items are important, and perhaps the deaths involved. Prestige is attached to highly desirable animal parts: a fading millionaire can always perk himself up with a bowl of tiger penis soup. 

Pangolins have been traded relentlessly for TCM. As the Asian species became vastly reduced the market turned to Africa… so that the end-user can ingest keratin: you may as well just chew your own fingernails. 

No scientific proof of its efficacy against any ailment or condition has ever been found… but we’re talking about belief, not fact. 

Sibolangit, Indonesia
A pangolin is released back into the wild. Indonesia is reported to
be the world’s largest illicit exporter of pangolin meat and scales

And the vast and complex set of beliefs that surrounds TCM is helping the gross depletion of nature, which is both damaging and sad. But the wild animal trade has also proved directly damaging to human beings, not in terms of a more circumscribed and depressing future, but in the form of illness and death – and right now. 

Over the last century humanity has been hammered by a series of diseases that have jumped from non-human species to humans: zoonotic diseases. Examples: Spanish flu, bird flu, Lassa fever, Ebola, HIV, Sars, Zika – and Covid-19. 

This is an issue that evades simple understanding. Instead it triggers an atavistic reaction: courageous humanity beleaguered by hostile nature. The process of species-jumping is hard to grasp intuitively. It operates because viruses mutate and the lucky mutations find themselves suitable for a new home in a different species: like a key fitting into a lock. 

Thus it was that the virus that caused Sars – severe acute respiratory syndrome – jumped from bats to civets and from civets to humans. What, you may ask, have civets got to do with humans? Answer: civet is a delicacy in China. Many foods strange to Western palates are considered both delicious and health-enhancing: TCM expanded into cuisine. 

Pangolins are also considered delicious, life-giving and prestigious. Researchers in Guangzhou suggested pangolins as the probable source of Covid-19, acting again as an intermediary between bats and humans. 

Perfect opportunities to jump species – for Covid and for any other virus – are provided by the livestock industry across the world. Example: the now-closed Huanan Seafood Wholesale Market in Wuhan, which also conducted a lively trade in wild animals. Trading in pangolins is against the law in China, punishable by ten years’ imprisonment, but in China, as everywhere else, law and law enforcement are different matters.

Cuc Phuong National Park, Vietnam
The Save Vietnam’s Wildlife charity has rescued more than 1,500 pangolins since it was founded in 2014

Chinese culinary traditions require food to be as fresh as possible, and the easiest way to keep meat fresh is not to kill the animal involved until the last moment. Many times I have commuted across Hong Kong harbour on a junk that operated as a ferry for both people and local goods. Live pigs travelled inside iron baskets that permitted no movement whatsoever, so that they could be manhandled like bales of hay. 

The Wuhan market covered 12 acres, had 1,000 tenants, and the western zone was given over to wild animals: a place of narrow aisles, one stall hard by the next, cages piled on top of each other, livestock and deadstock in close proximity, many animals slaughtered and skinned on the premises. It was a place full of blood and dung and for the Covid-19 virus it was the opportunity of a lifetime, and this is where it all began. There is not universal agreement on the pangolin origin of Covid-19, but it’s a hot favourite. It’s not unlike the transmission of bird flu, which can occur in intensive poultry farms. 

Covid-19 was and is a global disaster. There is a great deal of research on how to stop the next pandemic. But most of these efforts are directed at action that can be taken after the disease has reached humans. 

Harare, Zimbabwe
An African pangolin is cared for at a farm supported by the Tikki Hywood Foundation

But the best and most effective – and by far the cheapest – way to do so is to stop it at source. And that can be done by cracking down on the trade in wild animals and getting the worldwide business in meat, fish and dairy to operate with higher standards. Around 70 billion farm animals are reared every year, often in groups with low genetic diversity living in confined spaces. What virus could resist? Is cheap meat more important than human health? 

Pangolins, it is believed, can tunnel through mountains and unblock just about anything. If pangolins could break through atavistic beliefs and entrenched human practices that drive our dealings with non-human species, they will have done humanity the most colossal favour.

Simon Barnes is a journalist and author. His most recent book is The History of the World in 100 Animals.

Photographs Brent Stirton/Getty Images, Taylor Weidman/Getty Images, Juni Kriswanto/AFP, Manan Vatsyayana/AFP, Binsar Bakkara/AP/Shutterstock

This piece appeared in the latest edition of the Tortoise Quarterly, our short book of long stories. If you were lucky enough to grab a Founding Membership back in the early days of Tortoise, you’ll receive your copy in glorious, old-fashioned print. If not, you can pick up a physical copy in our shop at a special member price.