Words & Pictures by Alastair Marsh
Meet Amos; a rare male Ground Pangolin, a species been blamed for the pangolin coronavirus outbreak which has swept the world in early 2020.
Amos lives at the Rare and Endangered Species Trust (REST) located close to Etosha National Park in Namibia.
REST took Amos into their care after he was found injured on an industrial site and is now being looked after by leading world experts on Pangolin care and rehabilitation.
On planning my trip to Namibia in November 2019, I contacted REST about a year in advance at the possibility of visiting their centre and photographing Pangolins.
It seemed to be the only way of seeing these amazing creatures in their natural habitat during my two-week visit.
“Little did I realise then that Pangolins would feature heavily in the media in the coming months”
They’re so rare to see in the wild that I really would have needed every ounce of luck to see one that way let alone photograph one. The team at REST were very helpful and accommodating to my query on this, and it wasn’t long before we had ‘pencilled’ in a trip for me to visit.
The exact logistics of the visit would have to be sort out nearer the time, for I was informed Pangolins’ sleeping patterns vary through the year and, understandably, I was only able to see them when they were awake and foraging for food in the bush. As I got close to the departure date, I became eager in anticipation of visiting REST and seeing my first Pangolin. The date and time had been sorted, conveniently arranged for an evening during my stay at Ongava on the boundary of the Etosha National Park.
However, little did I realise then that Pangolins would feature heavily in the media in the coming months. Not from their plight as “the most trafficked animal on the planet” but with their link to coronavirus pandemic.
There are 8 species of Pangolin. 4 are found in Asia; the Chinese Pangolin, Philippine Pangolin, Sunda Pangolin and Indian Pangolin. The remaining 4 are found in Africa; the White-Bellied Pangolin, Giant Pangolin, Black-Bellied Pangolin and the Ground Pangolin (as illustrated by Amos).
All species are under threat. Their scales are a highly sought-after commodity in Chinese traditional medicine – they’re dried and ground up into a powder to cure anything from asthma to cancer.
Just like rhino horn there is no medicinal value as they’re made of keratin; the same stuff as our hair and nails. In January 2019 9 tons of Pangolin scales were seized in 1 shipment in Hong Kong. Due the proximity of Asian species to those who exploit them for this purpose the 4 Asian species are considered most at risk.
However, as they’ve been the primary target for poachers and traffickers their numbers have reduced to the extent that the African species are now being targeted.
The meat of the Pangolin is also widely received in Asia and some countries considered a delicacy. So much so that in February 2019 33 tons of Pangolin meat was discovered in Malaysia. The same article also reports that approximately 90,000 Pangolins were smuggled into China between 2007 and 2016.
How are Pangolins linked to the coronavirus?
While the source of the virus has not been confirmed, scientists believe bats are the most likely “host” of the pandemic, and then transferred to humans via another wild animal. There are now studies which suggest the transfer of the virus to humans may have come from the Sunda Pangolin, found in Malaysia.
The BBC reported on 26th March 2020 that smuggled Pangolins had been found to carry genetically similar viruses closely related to COVID19, and you can find many more reports and articles supporting this.
The human pandemic started in Wuhan in China, and most agree that it’s most likely origin was a wildlife trade market, known as a ‘wet market’, where the virus was transferred from a wild animal to humans. The term ‘wet market’ is given to markets which sell live animals (not just livestock but wildlife as well) and use melting ice to preserve stock for sale. They are a familiar sight in many southeast Asian countries and most notably in China. They’re considered “ticking time bombs” for epidemics such as coronavirus. This is not a new phenomenon; these markets are considered to be the source of SARS and Ebola.
The Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS), based in New York, have called for a complete ban on live animal markets, illegal trafficking and poaching and trade in wildlife. While unrelated, that call was answered by President Xi Jinping of China calling for a comprehensive ban on all illegal trade of wild animals in February 2020. While this is welcome news it, unfortunately, has loopholes for trade in wild animals for medicinal uses.
According to the WCS it doesn’t ban trade in fur, medicine or research. So, more needs to be done. Now that we’re seeing the effects of such practices on humans and its detrimental impact on the world’s economies, not to mention our day-to-day lives, it could be a watershed moment for wildlife conservation. The Belgian Biodiversity Platform (BBP) states that the illegal wildlife market is estimated to be worth between €6.5 – €22.3 billion per year, and it’s main drivers are luxury goods and food, traditional medicine and pets and entertainment.
The BBP are developing policy briefs on wildlife trade with a desire to move to a more sustainable practice. They held a conference in December 2019 on wildlife trade and human health. These briefs are the product of this conference (you can access them via their website) and will be sent to organisations like the World Wildlife Fund (WWF), International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) and the EU commission.
Whatever the source of the outbreak, it feels like the world is fighting back at human’s exploitative behaviour of wildlife and the natural world. It is a wake-up call each and every one of us should take heed. If we do nothing, outbreaks like COVID19 will continue. As human populations increase outbreaks will likely increase in number too.
Our consumption of natural history is unsustainable, but it’s not too late to turn the tide and share our planet. Only buy products that are sustainable and from reliable sources, reduce your use of plastic, support local conservation initiatives, promote global wildlife and conservation charities… the list goes on.
After all, Pangolins, as well as all forms of wildlife, have as much right to exist as we do.