As reported today by China’s state news agency Xinhua, a study led by South China Agricultural University suggests that pangolins were the vector for the new strain of coronavirus currently paralyzing China and responsible for hundreds of deaths.

The pangolin, a scaly anteater, is the most heavily trafficked wild mammal in the world, with its meat considered a delicacy in parts of Asia and its scales used in traditional medicine. In one such dish, raw blood is poured over rice. The animals are also consumed in Africa as bushmeat. 

The new strain of coronavirus is thought to have originated in bats before being transferred to humans through another animal. The recent study tested more than 1,000 samples from wild animals and found a 99% match between the genome sequences of viruses found in pangolins and those in human patients with the disease. 

WildAid first warned of the dangers of pangolin meat consumption in a public service announcement featuring Asian mega-star Jay Chou several years ago and is now calling for an urgent global ban on all live wildlife markets and all pangolins products. 

“All live wildlife markets globally should be closed down at once,” said WildAid CEO Peter Knights. “We need better law enforcement, stiffer penalties, and massive public education to stigmatize wild meat consumption to protect the public from another outbreak. Allowing sales of pangolin scales also supports and encourages the pangolin meat trade so that needs to end, too.”

All trade in pangolin meat and scales is banned internationally, although China still allows domestic sales of medicines containing pangolin scales despite a dwindling legal source of supply.

On January 19, 2020, Nigeria Customs seized 9.5 tonnes of pangolin scales representing tens of thousands of animals in Lagos, a hub for pangolin and ivory smuggling. Between 2017-19, an estimated 77 tonnes of pangolins scales were seized in shipments originating in Nigeria, representing close to 214,000 pangolins. At this rate, pangolins are anticipated to become extinct within two decades.  

Benin-born actor Djimon Hounsou, who investigated wildlife markets with WildAid this past November to rescue live pangolins, stated: “Africa needs to heed the lessons from China and close down these markets immediately. As well as a massive risk to health, they endanger species and are inhumane.”

In China, pangolins are currently under class II state protection, which is managed by the National Forestry and Grassland Administration (NFGA). Their scales are used in more than 60 approved medicines to stimulate lactation among new mothers and to treat conditions like swelling and rheumatism, among others. Last year, China announced it was considering upgrading pangolins to the highest level of national protection. Traditional medicine experts have vouched that there are many alternatives to pangolin scales, which are primarily made of keratin, the same protein found in human hair and fingernails.

All eight pangolin species gained the highest level of protection under CITES, the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora, after the CoP17 held in South Africa in September 2016. Since this meeting, the equivalent of more than 500,000 pangolins have been seized globally. This figure – reached in just over three years – far outpaces the previous estimate from the early 2000s of one million pangolins trafficked in a decade.

WildAid has been on the front lines of the fight for pangolins, launching its public awareness campaign in 2016, which aims to eliminate demand for pangolins in the world’s two largest markets – China and Vietnam – through behavior change campaigns designed to educate consumers and make consumption of pangolin products socially unacceptable. With our partners, we have reached some 800 million viewers in these countries with messaging across dozens of TV networks and on over 160,000 video screens in subways, airports, bus stops, hospitals and shopping centers. We have also deployed print and social media campaigns in the regions and convened Traditional Medicine experts for seminars to highlight the use of alternative ingredients

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About WildAid

WildAid is a non-profit organization with a mission to protect wildlife from illegal trade and other imminent threats. While most wildlife conservation groups focus on protecting animals from poaching, WildAid primarily works to reduce global consumption of wildlife products such as elephant ivory, rhino horn and shark fin soup. With an unrivaled portfolio of celebrity ambassadors and a global network of media partners, WildAid leverages more than $308 million in annual pro-bono media support with a simple message: When the Buying Stops, the Killing Can Too. 

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