Pangolins, which are often mistaken as reptiles, are actually the only wholly-scaled mammals in the world, with four known species found in Asia and two living in Sub-Saharan Africa.
These small, soft animals have been under threat for decades from poachers, as their scales are used in Chinese traditional medicines, leading to some species in Asia becoming “critically endangered,” according to the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN).
Though illegal to poach and trade, pangolin meat is prized as a delicacy in parts of China, which has led to the underground black market force-feeding the animals to increase their weight and price, and, in some cases turning to the African colony to solve the problem.
Sir David Attenborough – with the help of conservationist Maria Diekmann – exposed the rogue tricks used during his BBC series ‘Natural World’, when cameras visited a wildlife rescue centre in Vietnam.
The 93-year-old said in 2018: “This is a Sunda pangolin and this adult female has been at the centre for five weeks and is being prepared for release. “Unlike the Cape pangolins that Maria knows, the Sunda spends much of its life in the trees.
“It’s the most widely distributed species in Asia, but, as a result of illegal trade, it’s now critically endangered. “Sophisticated criminal networks smuggle pangolins from the forests of Southeast Asia and across the borders.”
Sir David went on to reveal how conservationists from Save Vietnam’s Wildlife have seen an influx in confiscated pangolins. He added: “Roughly 10 percent are intercepted by authorities, but the vast majority slip through the net.
“The trade is worth hundreds of millions of pounds.“Save Vietnam’s Wildlife is a lifeline for pangolins rescued from the black market, they’ve received over 400 this year alone and more are arriving all the time.
“15 Sunda pangolins were confiscated near the Vietnamese border with China, the team assess the surviving animals for any sign of injury.”
But, Sir David went on to detail a heartbreaking tactic that has been more recently exposed. He added: “They’ve all been vomiting a yellow substance.
“These pangolins were destined for the dinner table and force-fed to increase their weight and price.”
Ms Diekmann, clearly upset by witnessing first-hand this treatment, revealed that she feared African pangolins could soon face the same treatment.
She said: “The yellow indicates that they were force-fed. “Every single one of these pangolins went through the same thing. “They were handled by a bunch of loud, noisy people, pumping rice into their stomachs.
“The amount of animals coming in is almost overwhelming, if the demand continues to increase in Asia, then Africa is heading for the same situation.”
But China’s relationship with pangolins may soon be forced to change after scientists at the South China Agricultural University in Guangzhou linked pangolins with the recent coronavirus outbreak.
At a press conference on February 7, researchers Yongyi Shen and Lihua Xiao, compared coronaviruses from pangolins and humans infected in the outbreak, claiming the genetic sequences were 99 percent similar.
However, there was a twist in the story.
On February 20, the scientists posted a preliminary version of the study on the preprint site bioRxi, where they clarified that while the pangolin virus was “genetically related” to the one infecting humans, it was “unlikely to be directly linked to the outbreak because of the substantial sequence differences”.
The 99 percent similarity was only in one region of the genome, across the entire genome, the similarity was only 90.3 percent. Despite this, their research had already caused the Chinese government to spring into action.
On February 24, China announced an immediate ban on trading and eating many wild animals, including pangolins.
Officials began shutting down wild animal markets across the country, giving pangolins a glimpse of hope for the future.
But, there are still fears among international conservationists that this will only cause the black market to thrive, hiking up the price of the prized delicacy.
This article was first published by The Express on 23 April 2020.
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