Pangolin Settlement Offers Hope for Critically Poached Critter

Long-tailed pangolin (M. tetradactyla). (Credit: Brett Hartl/ Center for Biological Diversity via Courthouse News)

WASHINGTON (CN) — In their fight to protect the world’s only scaly mammal, conservationists settled on a deadline Tuesday for the government to decide on adding every variety of pangolin to the endangered species list.

For those who may not be familiar with the creature, Sarah Uhlemann, senior attorney with the Biological Center for Diversity, said in a call Tuesday they look a little like an artichoke.

“They have these hard, deflated scales that are made out of thin material that your fingernails are made out of, and they range in size from the size of a cat to quite a bit larger,” she continued.

Tuesday’s settlement is the result of a suit filed in January by Uhlemann’s group as well as the Humane Society, Born Free USA and the Natural Resources Defense Council. The groups challenged the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s failure to protect the scaly critters from poaching. Currently, only one pangolin species — the Temminck’s ground pangolin — is protected under the Endangered Species Act but the groups argue that the remaining seven varieties found in sub-Saharan Africa and Asia need the same status because they are illegally traded for possessing the same features.

“It’s very difficult to tell different pangolin species apart once they’re chopped up and carved up into the products they’re sold in,” Zak Smith, senior attorney with the NRDC, said on a call Tuesday, noting that pangolins are poached in Asia and Africa for their meat and scales, the latter of which are often later incorporated into medicinal products. In the Tuesday settlement, the Fish and Wildlife Service committed to deciding whether the other seven pangolin species should be treated as endangered by June 2021.

“Using the look-alike provision of the Endangered Species Act, we can say, ‘look if we check one, we have to check them all.’ That’s a quick way to get protections for all eight,” Smith added. 

The groups first petitioned for these protections in July 2015. In their January complaint, the groups said that at least 26,000 pangolin product imports were seized in the U.S. between 2004 and 2013. The conservation groups also say some U.S. stores and online businesses openly sell products that contain pangolin parts. The conservation groups say the pangolin is the most trafficked mammal in the world, despite their obscurity and a 2016 ban on international commercial trade.

“We have no reason to believe that that demand for pangolin products in the form of medicinal products containing or likely to contain pangolin parts has gone away,” Smith said Tuesday.

What’s more, part of pangolins’ unique design works against them.

“When they get scared they curl up into the little ball,” explained Uhlemann. “If you’re a lion kind of predator trying to eat them, that’s a fairly effective defense because the scales have these sharp edges on them. But it makes it so easy for poachers to catch them every time they get scared, which is how they catch them and put them in the bag.”

Uhlemann adds that now that demand has all but obliterated the four Asian species of pangolin, the species of pangolin in Africa are under threat. In their January complaint, the groups noted that “pangolins taken from the wild are mostly destined for markets in China and Vietnam, where it is erroneously believed that pangolin scales cure a range of ailments, and where pangolin meat and fetuses are consumed to display social status and wealth.” More than a million pangolins were poached for meat and scales between 2004 and 2014, the groups say.

“The interesting part is that the majority of the demand is in China and in other countries in Asia, but there is also a demand here in the United States — I think that might surprise some people,” Uhlemann said. “It looks like it’s mostly for medicinal purposes.”

The groups noted that between 2004 and 2013, at least 26,000 imports of pangolin products were seized in the United States. What’s more, a 2015 report by Humane Society International found “medicinal” products containing or likely to contain pangolin parts openly for sale online and at U.S. stores.

Along with bats, pangolins have been zeroed in on as the possible agents of infection that caused the interspecies jump responsible for the Covid-19 pandemic. 

In February, the South China Agricultural University in Guangzhou said that two of its researchers had identified the pangolin as the potential source of the virus. Other researchers have said that the pangolins caught in China could have been exposed to coronaviruses while in transport. 

“Pangolins are most likely incidental hosts infected within the wildlife trade,” Jimmy Lee, a researcher with the nonprofit EcoHealth Alliance Malaysia in Kuala Lumpur, told Nature in July, noting that more research would be needed to rule pangolins out as an intermediate host of the virus.

Other scientists have proffered that while pangolins could have spread Covid-19 to humans, they may also be the answer to learning how to treat the disease.

“Our work shows that pangolins have survived through millions of years of evolution without a type of antiviral defense that is used by all other mammals,” Dr. Leopold Eckhart, of the Medical University of Vienna in Austria, said in a May statement concerning his research on the topic. “Further studies of pangolins will uncover how they manage to survive viral infections, and this might help to devise new treatment strategies for people with viral infections.”

For Smith, the pangolins possible role in the pandemic only emphasizes the need for better protections.

“We cannot continue to exploit wildlife the way that we have,” Smith said. “There is a cost in the world of wildlife trade of spreading zoonotic disease.”

“For the most trafficked animal in the world, it’s time for the United States to use every tool at its disposal to crack down on the trade of pangolins and this settlement could move us closer to maximizing those protections that we need to enact,” he continued. 

The Tuesday settlement further gives the Fish and Wildlife Service until March 1, 2022, to submit a final rule to the Federal Register with respect to the proposed addition of the other seven pangolin species. From there, the government has until June 1, 2025, to determine whether such more rulemaking is warranted. A representative for Fish and Wildlife did not return a request for comment on the settlement.

Of the eight species of pangolins, four species live in Africa (black-bellied pangolin, white-bellied pangolin, giant ground pangolin and Temminck’s ground pangolin), and four live in Asia (Indian pangolin, Philippine pangolin, Sunda pangolin and the Chinese pangolin).

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