China has removed pangolin parts from its list of traditional medicines, state-backed media reported, in a move campaigners say is a vital step in helping to protect the endangered animal.

Pangolins – the world’s most trafficked mammal – are highly sought after in China and Vietnam for their meat which is considered a delicacy, while their scales are used in traditional medicine and folk remedies.

Similar in size to domestic cats and the only mammal covered in scales, all eight pangolin species are protected under international laws but there remains a growing illegal trade of the animals.

This week health authorities omitted pangolin scales from China’s latest Pharmacopoeia, an approved list of traditional drugs and remedies due to “wild resources exhaustion”, according to a report in the Health Times.

WildAid CEO Peter Knights said the move was “the greatest single action that could have been taken to save pangolins from extinction.”

“The increased protection coupled with the swift and comprehensive closure of live wildlife markets and removal of many wild species from the list of what can be consumed as food in China were already very positive steps to saving the pangolin worldwide and reducing the possibility of them ever being a vector for disease.

“And now this announcement, effectively the closure of legal sales of pangolin scales, shutting the last major loophole in pangolin protection efforts,” he added.

People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) welcomed China’s decision, but urged action to stop the sale of pangolins on the black market.

“PETA gives a nod to China for taking an important step to combat the demand for pangolin scales,” director Elisa Allen told The Independent.

“However, as long as it remains desirable and profitable for endangered animals’ body parts to be sold for medicine, wildlife will continue to be killed on the black market.

“We urge the Chinese government to clamp down on the use of animal-derived substances for medicine – whether it’s pangolin scales, donkey skin for ejiao, or horse urine for Premarin, which is also an issue in the West.”

The move comes after China’s forestry authority last week upgraded the status of pangolins to “first-level protected wild animal,” the highest possible protection status alongside pandas and tigers.

Trade in pangolins is banned in China but it is estimated that between 116,990 and 233,980 were killed between 2011 and 2013, according to the World Wildlife Fund, but experts fears those numbers are just the tip of the iceberg.

Last year alone, authorities seized more than 130 tons of pangolin related products, a figure estimated to represent up to 400,000 animals, according to conservation group WildAid.

Gilbert Sape, Head of Traditional Medicine at World Animal Protection called for a permanent ban on wildlife trade, saying it wwas ”the only long-term solution to keeping wild animals wild, eliminating animal suffering, and all importantly, preventing major health epidemics.”

Pangolins eat ants, termites and larvae. Some scientists believe they may incubate the Covid-19 virus that is thought to have emerged in Wuhan last year and has since swept the globe.

Following the outbreak of coronavirus at the end of last year, China banned the consumption of all wild animals in a bid to prevent further outbreaks but many wet markets have since reopened.

Earlier this year, The Independent renewed its call for the banning of trade in wild animals to help protect endangered species and avoid future pandemics.

“These actions of China will have a real impact, these are steps that were critical, that needed to be taken if real conservation was going to happen for these animals,” said David Olson, director of Conservation at WWF Hong Kong.

“Most of the demand for pangolin is coming from traditional Chinese medicine and consumption. That’s what is driving this large scale illegal trade.”

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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 $218 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