Saturday, February 13, 2016

The vanishing pangolin: How do you change the value of an endangered species?

Extinction is forever. Extinction reduces the biological heritage of the Earth and is something that we cannot undo.

While living in China, and traveling around Asia, I have said something to my children I have never said before: “I want you to take a really good look, these animals will go extinct in your lifetime”.  I said this as we were watching 8 of the 60 remaining Hong Kong pink dolphins.

Hong Kong pink dolphin (photo by Shirley Lo-Cadotte)

Species become rare and endangered for many reasons, like habitat destruction, pollution, human facilitated spread of problematic species (rats for example), and direct harvesting. While all of these factors are subject to laws and regulations that attempt to control them, it is the last one, harvesting, that relies most on altering peoples' wants and desires. I don’t know why, but to me it is also the saddest cause, the idea that a species dies out because we desire it and kill it or chop it down, just doesn’t seem right.  

Walking through the market alley near my apartment in Guangzhou, China, I saw something that both intrigued and horrified me: a dead and quartered pangolin. You may not be familiar with pangolins –also called scaly anteaters; they are mammals about the size of a large cat or medium-small dog (like a cocker spaniel), with a very long and thick prehensile tail that they use in trees. Their most unique feature is that they are covered in large flat scales that are made of keratin –the same as your fingernails. 

A Chinese pangolin, Manis pentadactyla (https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Pangolin%27s_tail.jpgsted to Flickr by verdammelt cc-by-sa-2.0) 
Pangolins are critically endangered. They also have the distinction of being one of the most trafficked animals in the world. In China and Vietnam there is high demand for pangolins because they are considered a delicacy and more importantly their scales are used in traditional medicine. These scales are believed to provide a cure for a number of diseases, including cancer. The incidence of cancers in China is skyrocketing, which is not surprising given the level of pollution, and couple this with increasing affluence, the desire and ability to pay for pangolin parts has never been greater.

Obviously pangolin scales do not cure cancer. You might as well save your money and suck on your fingernails instead, but evidence and logic are not likely to sway mortal fear. There are groups in Asia dedicated to protecting endangered animals and educate citizens about wildlife. Such organizations have an opportunity to capitalize on recent attitude shifts in China and elsewhere, where animal wellbeing is increasingly seen as important. In China, pet ownership has increased dramatically over the past decade and pets are now seen as companions –which I suspect was partially a result of the one-child policy. But the demand for pangolins still exists. When we visited the Angkor Conservation Centre in Cambodia, which works tirelessly to rehabilitate animals and educate people, they were recovering from the theft of one of their pangolins from an enclosure, which they knew was transported to China.

The Chinese authorities are coming down hard on the illegal pangolin trade. They now routinely arrest individuals selling pangolins and seize large shipments. While such seizures and arrests show that the Chinese government is taking pangolin protection seriously, there is only so much they can do while demand is high.

Police confiscating a large illegal pangolin shipment bound for China (photo originally from news.163.com) 

My Mother-in-law, who is from southern China, said it best when I told her about the dead pangolin in the alley: “people just need to be educated”. That is really where the answer lies. Laws can only change peoples’ behaviour so much; education campaigns are desperately needed. Currently, there is an internationally funded billboard campaign in China to stop people from buying elephant ivory. Ivory demand is high in China. Despite the importance of reducing ivory purchases, I would argue that this type of education campaign needs to focus a little closer to home, and Pangolin conservation efforts are in desperate need of help. 

When we were visiting the conservation centre in Cambodia, I told my children that the Pangolin would go extinct in their lifetime. I really hope that I am wrong.




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