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Pangolin scales will no longer be used in traditional Chinese medicine

China has removed pangolin scales from the list of approved ingredients for use in traditional Chinese medicine.

Pangolins are the most trafficked mammal species in the world, and it’s thought that they could be responsible for the transmission of the novel coronavirus to humans. Their scales are widely used in traditional Chinese medicine as an (ineffective) treatment for many ailments, anything from arthritis to low breast milk supply. Poaching across Asia has caused all eight species of pangolin to become endangered. However, there may be a glimmer of hope for these animals as China, the country whose market for these creatures is the primary culprit for the global decline in their population, has at long last removed their scales from the list of ingredients for use in traditional medicine.

Pangolin scales
One kilogramme of pangolin scales can cost up to 600 US dollars © Gmacfadyen/Flickr

Pangolins granted protected status in China

For the first time in decades, the approved list of ingredients released in 2020 doesn’t include pangolin scales. The news, reported by Chinese newspaper the Health Times, hasn’t yet been made official by the relevant institutions. However it comes a few days after the Chinese government announced the upgrading of pangolins’ protected status to the highest possible level, which the animals will now share, together with related benefits, with pandas.

“I’m very encouraged,” says Zhou Jinfeng, Secretary General of the China Biodiversity Conservation and Green Development Foundation (CBCGDF), an organisation fighting for the protection of pangolins. “Our continuous efforts for several years haven’t been in vain”.

A turning point for pangolin conservation

200,000 pangolins are consumed in Asia each year according to the environmental organisation WildAid. They’re hunted for their meat as well as scales, tonnes of which are confiscated as a result of border checks. Pangolins are included in Appendix I of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES), which bans cross-border trade of animals and their parts. This is the highest level of protection within the convention’s framework.

The ban on medicinal use of scales “is the single greatest measure that could be taken to save the pangolins,” claims WildAid CEO Peter Knights.

Pangolin crossing a road
Vietnam is the second biggest market for pangolin scales after China © Ansar Khan/Life Line for the Nature Society

The EIA has its doubts

However, the Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA)– a UK-based NGO that coordinates inquiries into crimes against wildlife and the environment – has suggested that enthusiasm over the news may be premature. It highlighted that it’s not yet clear whether pangolin scales have also been removed from the section relating to ingredients used in patented medicines. If this weren’t the case, part of the Chinese pharmaceutical industry could still continue using their parts.

Similar situations have occurred in the past with leopard bones and moon bear bile. Furthermore, it’s not clear what China intends to do with current stocks of pangolin scales. In the past, companies have been able to dip into stocks even after products have been banned without providing inventory data, therefore generating ambiguities.

The effects of the pandemic

For decades, pangolins have been stripped from their habitats, trapped in cramped cages and trafficked from country to country. If things are now starting to change, with the animals benefiting from better protections, this could also be thanks to the coronavirus. In fact, the species is suspected of have been the intermediate host that transmitted the virus to human beings.

Thanks to international pressure driven by mounting evidence of the link between the pandemic and the exploitation of wildlife, China announced a permanent ban on the wildlife trade. Unfortunately, the ban is limited to consumption of animal meat and doesn’t extend to use of body parts for traditional medicine. Next year China is expected to approve revisions to the law protecting wild fauna which will hopefully help clarify the situation.

Translated by

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