In a world where unsustainable human consumption continues to push wildlife to the brink of extinction, pangolins, the world’s only scaly mammal, have emerged as an unexpected focal point in the effort to save endangered wild species.
Pangolins are reclusive, solitary, and nocturnal animals that, protected by their scaly exterior, have few natural predators. Vital for ecosystem health, each pangolin is capable of consuming enough termites to protect over 40 acres of land from destruction. However, these natural pest controllers are in trouble. The very armor that protects them is ironically the cause of the species’ rapid decline. Pangolin scales are believed to possess healing properties and are commonly used in Traditional Medicine practices across Asia.
In Vietnam, which is noted as a significant hub in the illegal trade of wildlife, pangolin scales are a popular product amongst Traditional Medicine practitioners because they’re thought to cure various illnesses and ailments. Practitioners have cited using pangolin scales to cure mammary gland blockages in breastfeeding women, treat rheumatism, stimulate blood flow, reduce swelling, promote the discharge of pus from wounds, and more.
The belief that pangolin scales can heal mammary gland blockages has led to dramatic increases in demand for the unique part, bringing the animal to the brink of extinction. Relying on certain medicinal ingredients, particularly those that are wildlife in origin, can also have serious implications to the patient’s health, including possible viral infections and other dangerous reactions.
Findings have shown that Traditional Medicine practitioners, including doctors and folk healers, often do not know where the ingredients contained in the medicine they prescribe come from. This means practitioners are also often unaware when medicinal ingredients are sourced from species poached from the wild as opposed to ingredients obtained with proper permits and inspections for safety and sustainability. However, most research and outreach to date has focused on consumer demand for medicinal pangolin products, instead of on the practitioners themselves who are key players in the prescription and consumption of these products.
WildAid, along with Choice (a Vietnam-based organization whose mission is to promote environmental conservation), the Hue University of Medicine and Pharmacy in Vietnam, the Thừa Thiên Huế Acupuncture Association (TAA), and fellows from the Emerging Wildlife Conservation Leaders (EWCL) program, conducted new research to gain a better understanding of Traditional Medicine practitioners’ beliefs and motives around using pangolin products in their practice. The partners launched a survey of 131 practitioners in Hue City, Thừa Thiên Huế province, Vietnam in April 2023. 80.7% of practitioners surveyed said that pangolin products were useful for treating at least one type of ailment, with over half of all practitioners (52.7%) indicating the products are an effective treatment for mammary gland blockages in lactating women—findings showed this is the most popular application for any pangolin-based formula.
While the survey showed there are strongly held beliefs regarding the healing power of pangolin scales and products as a medication, there were also signs of hope for potential changes in this “prescription” behavior. Nearly all of the respondents (83%) indicated that they were aware that pangolin products are illegal in Vietnam, and over half of the practitioners (55%) already indicate a willingness to try medications containing alternative ingredients to pangolin scales in their practice (with an additional 22% undecided). Practitioners were most likely to be deterred by wildlife endangerment messaging when it comes to stopping the use of pangolin products. This indicates that greater efforts to educate practitioners about effective alternatives and the plight of endangered species could be instrumental in transitioning key stakeholders and the industry as a whole toward a more sustainable, non-wildlife-based practice.
Informed by the research findings, a group of 84 skillful Traditional Medicine practitioners and healers in Vietnam, members from the Hue University of Medicine and Pharmacy, along with scientists and stakeholders from governmental and non-governmental organizations got together in August 2023 to workshop and identify realistic and effective, sustainable and herbal alternatives that, when combined, can cure difficult to heal illnesses, and thereby protect endangered species, like pangolins.
Through this case study and subsequent workshop, with support from the Government of Thừa Thiên Huế province, the team is beginning to better understand practitioners’ motives and beliefs around pangolin usage in Traditional Medicine in Vietnam. This knowledge can then be used to equip WildAid, Choice, and other partners with the tools and information needed to launch targeted conservation initiatives and campaigns to urge Traditional Medicine practitioners in Vietnam to stop using pangolin parts in their practice for good, in an effort to end the plight of these endangered species. New research is continuing to identify which herbal medicines can be used to effectively treat specific, difficult-to-heal illnesses that do not jeopardize the patient’s safety and overall health.
Thanks to a growing trend of conservation-minded practitioners, Traditional Medicine is beginning to return to its roots of achieving a harmonious balance between the human body and nature. But there remains a need for greater education within the industry around the mounting threats to endangered species and the viability of herbal-based alternatives, along with a need for a platform through which practitioners can engage, share information, and unify their voices around the urgency of stopping the use of wildlife products in Traditional Medicine. Working together, we can promote a sustainable practice that embodies the long-standing values of Traditional Medicine, while cherishing and prioritizing the protection of one of the planet’s most threatened species.
To learn more about WildAid’s work to save pangolins across the globe, check out our page here.
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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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