The dropping by China’s state insurers of medicines derived from pangolin scales could help save threatened populations in Africa.
The move was announced last August and took effect in January this year, a month before Chinese researchers suggested the scaly mammal may have passed the COVID-19 virus from bats to humans in Wuhan.
In a new report, the Swiss-based Wildlife Justice Commission (WJC) claims that reducing the demand for pangolin scales from medicine producers in China “may create a shift away from traditional cultural beliefs towards an acceptance that there is no medicinal value in products made from animal parts”.
Sarah Stoner, director of intelligence at the WJC, said the decision to stop covering products containing pangolin scales “not only sends out a clear message to users but will also impact [their] ability to claim insurance”.
The general trade in pangolins is prohibited in China except for scientific research, captive breeding, exhibition or special purposes including traditional Chinese medicine.
China is taking measures to crack down on the illegal trade. In December, authorities arrested 18 people following a year-long investigation, Stoner noted.
She also said China is planning additional steps to protect pangolins, including upgrading its endangered status from Class II to Class I.
The WJC report analysed government data on scales trafficked and seized between 2016 and 2019 and calculated that 206 tonnes had been confiscated globally – though this is probably just a small proportion of the total.
The report noted a significant increase in the last four years in the volume of pangolin scales being smuggled by organised crime networks.
New smuggling routes
The report identifies Nigeria as an emerging hub for trade in pangolin scales. The new route, which has only only been documented since May 2018, brings the scales from Nigeria to Vietnam via Singapore. According to the report, this trade may reflect “the strengthening relationship between traffickers operating in these countries or an emergence of new trafficking networks in Nigeria.”
Nigeria and Vietnam together accounted for about 70 per cent of all seizures between 2016-2019. Along the route, scales were both smuggled on their own and in combination with ivory.
Since the hunting to near extinction of all four Asian pangolin species, Africa has become the major source of pangolin scales, with Nigeria, the Democratic Republic of Congo and Cameroon being the biggest players.
More action needed
While the move by China is welcome, it would not go far enough in saving threatened African pangolins, according to wildlife expert Sam Weru, a Kenya-based conservation consultant.
China should ban the manufacture and use of traditional medicines from endangered wildlife and remove them from informal markets in order to dent international poaching and trafficking networks, he observed.
This month, researchers in Guangzhou claimed that pangolins may have bridged the COVID-19 coronavirus from bats to humans. The outbreak has prompted China to put a temporary ban on trade in wildlife and it is now facing calls for a permanent ban.
A holistic approach to pangolin poaching and trafficking is needed, with a focus on parts of central Africa that are affected by political instability and conflict.
“Scaling law enforcement is critical in ending the illegal transnational trade in the species, coupled with the involvement of communities in source countries to help in protecting African pangolins,” said Weru.
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