Finally, some good news for pangolins

In the last few days, there has been significant media coverage, including this article in The Guardian, about the removal of pangolin scales from the approved list of ingredients for Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM).  The news of the delisting from the TCM pharmacopoeia comes hot on the heels of an announcement last week by the State Forestry and Grassland Administration (SFGA) that the protected status of pangolins had been raised to the highest level, with immediate effect.

In the aftermath of the COVID-19 outbreak, China announced an immediate ban on the wildlife trade for consumption but the wildlife trade for TCM was unaffected.  These new announcements about the pangolin, the world’s most heavily trafficked animal, represent a major step forward. 

However, as with all rules and laws, their effectiveness depends on awareness and enforcement.  Just a few weeks ago, the Beijing and Chicago-based Paulson Institute spoke with Cambridge PhD candidate and pangolin expert, Wang Yifu, about the perilous status of the pangolin and what needed to be done to save this unique group of animals (well worth a read).  

Before the recent announcement, there was a legal, but regulated, trade in pangolin scales, ostensibly from government stockpiles, for TCM in China.  However, transparency, awareness and enforcement was poor.  One study found around 30% of 134 pharmaceutical shops were selling pangolin scale medicine and illegal pangolin products were even found in some of the hospitals authorised to sell pangolin scales. Yet, alarmingly, the doctors and practitioners involved were unaware that their behaviour was illegal.  

So, although laws are necessary, they are not sufficient.  As Yifu says, awareness among the public and TCM practitioners and enforcement by authorities, have equally significant roles to play in reducing the demand for, and supply of, pangolin scales.  

TCM is being heavily promoted by the Chinese government internationally, including through its flagship “Belt and Road” initiative to revitalise old trading routes into Central Asia and Africa.  The TCM industry is worth around USD 60 billion a year, according to a World Health Organisation (WHO) Bulletin, and growing at around 11 percent annually.  Even though wildlife parts represent only a small fraction of TCM ingredients, under its current trajectory and with existing approved ingredients, TCM will have an increasing negative impact on wildlife, including many endangered species.  In a recent report, ADM Capital Foundation said that the TCM industry accounted for more than three-quarters of the trade in endangered wildlife products in Hong Kong over the past 5 years.

If TCM is serious about wanting to be accepted more widely, there is a growing responsibility to reduce its impact on wildlife and, ultimately, that means delisting ALL wildlife ingredients.

In the meantime, let’s hope these announcements are not too late for the beleaguered pangolin.   

Title image: Pangolins of the world (IUCN Pangolin Specialist Group)


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