A pangolin in Indonesia. A new survey shows that most Hong Kong people are against the use of pangolins in traditional Chinese medicine. Photo: Paul Hilton for WildAid
By: Kylie Knott

 

 

In Hong Kong, a city where the ancient and modern coexist,  traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) remains deeply rooted in local culture. But while TCM continues to play an integral role in how illness in the city is treated, a new survey shows just how far public opinion has shifted concerning what ingredients are acceptable. Endangered wildlife, including endangered pangolins, are overwhelmingly not. Conducted by the University of Hong Kong and global conservation organisation WildAid, the survey found two-thirds (67 per cent) of 1,000 people interviewed considered the use of pangolins in TCM to be unacceptable. It doesn’t end with the scaly anteaters: some 96 per cent of those surveyed agreed that “endangered animal species should be protected”, while 85 per cent agreed that “Chinese medicine should phase out the use of endangered wildlife species while promoting sustainable and herbal alternatives”.

A high proportion (85 per cent) also said that Hong Kong laws banning the use of endangered wildlife species in TCM need stricter enforcement. In TCM, pangolin scales are used to treat conditions such as breast milk stoppage, rheumatoid arthritis, swelling and poor circulation, despite no scientific evidence showing they are effective as a treatment. Professor Lao Lixing, director of the School of Chinese Medicine at Hong Kong University, says the use of endangered species only serves to damage TCM’s reputation, adding there are herbal medicines that have similar functions to pangolin scales. “With advanced research and cutting-edge technology, the use of sustainable and herbal alternatives has become very possible,” he says. The survey backed this, with 93 per cent of respondents supporting the use of effective sustainable herbal alternatives to pangolin scales.

A pangolin scale prepared for traditional Chinese medicine. Photo: Shutterstock
A pangolin scale prepared for traditional Chinese medicine. Photo: Shutterstock
Seized bags of dried pangolin scales displayed during a press presentation at Kwai Chung Customhouse in Hong Kong in September last year, following a 10-week joint operation targeting smugglers of endangered species at the city’s airport, seaport, land boundary and railway control points. Photo: EPA-EFE
Seized bags of dried pangolin scales displayed during a press presentation at Kwai Chung Customhouse in Hong Kong in September last year, following a 10-week joint operation targeting smugglers of endangered species at the city’s airport, seaport, land boundary and railway control points. Photo: EPA-EFE

The survey was released in Shanghai at the 18th Consortium for Globalisation of Chinese Medicine that ended on Saturday. The timing was crucial. Beijing is considering upgrading the species to the highest level of national protection. At the moment, pangolin falls under class II state protection and is used in more than 60 approved drugs.

“To get an overall ban in mainland [China], where it is illegal to buy pangolin scales on the streets but legally sanctioned in some hospital clinics, is our next goal,” Hofford says. “It would erase this grey area and make trading of pangolins 100 per cent illegal.”

The survey comes in the wake of a January report by the Hong Kong Wildlife Trade Working Group, a loose coalition of NGOs, academics, legal professionals and experts in Hong Kong, called “Trading in Extinction: The Dark Side of Hong Kong Wildlife Trade”. The 200-page report highlights Hong Kong’s role as a major hub for the illegal trade in wildlife. It found that since 2013, seizures by Hong Kong authorities of illegal ivory, pangolin scales and rhino horn potentially equate to the deaths of 3,000 elephants, 51 rhinoceroses and 65,000 pangolins.

Sadly, more pangolin scales and body parts were seized in Hong Kong than in any other jurisdiction between 2013 and 2015; the seizures in the city accounted for 45 per cent of all pangolin products seized worldwide between 2007 and 2015.

“Our research indicates Hong Kong has become a hub for organised wildlife smugglers, with consequences for the international reputation of our city as well as international biodiversity,” says Lisa Genasci, chief executive of the ADM Capital Foundation, which focuses on environmental issues in Asia and published the “Trading in Extinction” report.

“Extinction of elephants, rhino, pangolin and many other species in our lifetime is on the horizon, unless the illegal trade is stopped,” she warned.

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About WildAid

WildAid is a non-profit organization with a mission to end the illegal wildlife trade in our lifetimes. 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 $230 million in annual pro-bono media support with a simple message: When the Buying Stops, the Killing Can Too. 

Journalists on deadline may email communications@wildaid.org