China has banned the trade of wildlife, suspecting that exotic animals infected humans. What will that really do?
By Wufei Yu
Mr. Yu is a contributor to Outside Magazine.
“We can’t be indifferent anymore!” President Xi Jinping of China fumed at top officials early last month, referring to the public health risks of eating wildlife. On Feb. 24, the 13th National People’s Congress issued a decision“Comprehensively Prohibiting the Illegal Trade of Wild Animals, Eliminating the Bad Habits of Wild Animal Consumption and Protecting the Health and Safety of the People.” This and an earlier ban on wildlife markets were direct responses to concerns that the new coronavirus, which is thought to have originated in bats, may have been transmitted to humans via a wild animal for sale at a wet market in Wuhan, a city in central China.
Genetic analyses have come up short of pinpointing the culprit so far, but among the prime suspects is the pangolin, a long-snouted, scaly, ant-eating mammal virtually unknown in the West but widely prized in China as a delicacy and for its purported medicinal virtues.
So now, on suspicion that it might have infected humans with Covid-19, the pangolin will finally be spared and protected. Or will it?
China has had wildlife trading bans on the books for three decades, but those haven’t prevented pangolins from becoming the most trafficked mammal in the world.
The country’s first wildlife protection lawdates back to the late 1980s, as does an official list of some 330 endangered species. Illegally poaching, smuggling or trading pangolins, for example, can carry lengthy prison terms.
In 2000, China issued detailed regulations for more than 1,700 protected species considered to have biological, scientific or social value. Hunting toads in a pond or catching geckos could count as a violation.
In 2007, the sale of pangolin products outside of specially certified hospitals and clinics was outlawed. In 2018, Hubei Province, where Wuhan is, created some 300 wildlife conservation zones and cracked down on unlicensed hunting and trading.
But none of this has helped pangolins. In January 2019, nine tons of pangolin scales — thought to have come from some 14,000 animals — were seized in a single shipment in Hong Kong. The next month, 33 tons of pangolin meat were discovered in Malaysia, and in April, 14 tons of scales in Singapore.
According to a 2016 report by the wildlife advocacy group WildAid, more than a million pangolins had been poached over the previous decade, accounting, some say, for as much as 20 percent of all illegal wildlife trading.
According to TRAFFIC, a global wildlife trade monitoring network, from 2007 to 2016 some 90,000 pangolins were smuggled into China. In 2017, a ban on the international commercial trade of all eight species of pangolins went into effect under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (China is a party to it). Yet by last year, the Chinese pangolin had become “functionally extinct” in China, according to the China Biodiversity Conservation and Green Development Group, a Chinese organization.
Over the past two decades, the population of Malayan pangolins has dropped by 80 percent and those of Filipino and Indian pangolins by 50 percent.
One problem is that the regulatory framework in China hasn’t specified what wildlife entails. Enforcement has been lax, and there were exceptions anyway for licensed retailers, like Chinese medicine shops and online sellers. The latest ban also has loopholes that will allow the trade of wildlife for medicine or research.
And then, of course, there is tremendous demand for pangolins, and with that comes, for poachers and sellers, great economic benefits. The price of live pangolins has increased from about $7 per pound in the 1990s to around $300 today.
Pangolin hot pot is considered a delicacy. Officials have been known try to impress high-level guests with a pangolin meat stir-fry. Braise or steam pangolin with ginger and citronella, and show off the results online. The meat is a status symbol.
The scales, in particular, are thought to have health properties. In one 2015 survey, 70 percent of Chinese respondents said they believed that consuming pangolin could cure rheumatism and skin diseases and heal wounds. People hold some of these beliefs thinking they are rooted in traditional Chinese cuisine and medicine.
Except that our ancestors actually said otherwise.
If anything, the meat of pangolins was believed to cause ailments, rather than cure any: It tastes bitter and was thought to be poisonous. “Beiji Qianjin Yaofang” (备急千金要方), a collection of prescriptions compiled by Sun Simiao, an alchemist of the Tang dynasty, advised in 652: “There are lurking ailments in our stomachs. Don’t eat the meat of pangolins, because it may trigger them and harm us.” “Bencao Gangmu” (本草纲目, Compendium of Materia Medica), the Chinese medicine and cuisine capstone by Li Shizhen (1518-93) — an herbalist, naturalist and physician — warned that people who eat pangolin “may contract chronic diarrhea, and then go into convulsion and get a fever.”
Ancient texts also cautioned against eating any number of other wild animals, including snakes and badgers and other creatures, such as boars, that today are thought to sometimes transmit diseases to humans.
And yet big data retrieved from Baidu, China’s equivalent of Google, show that over the decade before the Covid-19 outbreak, between 2009 and 2019, the keyword “pangolin” accounted for 23 percent of all the searches for “ye wei” (野味), or “wild tastes.” It trumped searches for boar, bamboo rat and palm civet.
Since last month’s ban on certain civets, bats, marmots — and pangolins — searches for what wild animals can still be eaten have been trending on Chinese social media. “Are bullfrogs still available?” “How about deer?” “And quail? Or quail eggs?”
Did pangolins transmit the coronavirus to humans? Is Covid-19 their revenge on us for bringing them to the edge of extinction? In any event, yet another ban on trading and eating pangolins isn’t likely to help them, especially with its caveats for medical uses. Better instead to take on modern misconceptions about health and traditions — and for that, nothing beats going back to centuries-old texts.
Wufei Yu is a Chinese journalist and contributor to Outside Magazine.