On the face of it, there’s not an awful lot to commend the pangolin. There are no charismatic features, no jawdropping behaviour to get us leaping from our armchairs. It’s just a solitary, scaly, nocturnal mammal that spends much of its unremarkable life grubbing around for insects. And yet when David Attenborough was asked which ten animals he’d save by taking on a symbolic ark, the pangolin got a boarding pass. And here’s the depressing reason why.
Because it is so highly prized in China and Vietnam, the pangolin has become the most trafficked mammal in the world – up to 100,000 are thought to be poached each year in Africa and Asia to have their scales ground down into “curative” powder and their meat served up to the very wealthiest.
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Dining out on pangolin meat is a practice that’s all about bragging rights, says conservationist Maria Diekmann. “In Asia, it’s the animal that shows you have money,” she tells us from her home in Namibia, where she has a farm looking after endangered animals, including the pangolin. “The businessman goes to the restaurant, he orders a live pangolin, it comes to the table, its throat is slit and in that moment the host has shown his friends and colleagues that he has enough money to buy something that is incredibly rare. The more expensive it gets, the more the demand increases.”
Only those pangolins that are caught in Asia pangolin can be kept alive long enough to be served up to wealthy customers; the animals poached in Africa die long before they reach their destination. “They are almost impossible to keep alive,” says Diekmann. “Even if you did know what to feed them, they wouldn’t eat. By the time they have been collected in the bush and a buyer has been found, they will be dead.”
Many tonnes of pangolin bodies have been discovered in deep freeze on ships bound for China. One website posting prices about exotic animals says a live pangolin is worth $1,000, the meat $300 a kilo and those all-so-important scales $3,000 a kilo.
The reason the scales command such a high price is because they are reputed to have medicinal benefits, including providing a treatment for cancer. But the fact is that the pangolin’s scales are made of keratin, which is precisely the same material as rhino horn – and human fingernails. “So if they have power to cure cancer then so does biting your fingernail,” scoffs Diekmann. “But that’s the cultural belief and it’s so old and so deeply ingrained it’s very hard to shift.”
But there is a sense that the tide is turning for the endangered anteater-like mammal – thanks to sources both conventional and surprising.
For starters, the 182 nations that are signed up to the Convention on the International Trade in Endangered Species (Cites) have agreed a total ban on the pangolin trade, making it harder for criminals to traffic them and increasing the penalties for those who are caught. “The black market is still thriving, but obviously this helps,” says Diekmann.
And then there are the efforts of Angela Yeung Wing, a Chinese model, actress and pop singer who is better known by her stage name of Angelababy. She released a short campaign video urging people to stop buying pangolin products, with the slogan, “When the buying stops the killing can too”. The video has been watched 25 million times. “Angelababy is very passionate about pangolins and it is important to have her support,” says Diekmann.
The two met in Shanghai for a programme the American-born Diekmann has helped make for this week’s Natural World strand. “She is not only a really nice person, she just has so much influence. Everywhere we went, not just China, but in Vietnam, Thailand… everyone knows Angelababy. It’s important to get highprofile Chinese people to say this is wrong, and her actions make me think there is hope for the pangolin.”
Pangolins: the World’s Most Wanted Animal is on Tuesday 14th May at 8pm on BBC2