China urged to burn stockpiles of pangolin scales

China urged to burn stockpiles of pangolin scales

Environmental groups say a symbolic gesture would send a clear signal to the public that use of pangolin scales is no longer permitted. Alexis Kriel reports

In July 2015 Mozambique’s Minister of Land, Environment and Rural Development Celso Correia put the flame to 618 elephant tusks and 86 rhino horns. Kenya’s ivory burn in 2016 was contentious. Photo supplied

A call on the Chinese government to burn its stockpile of pangolin scales is gathering momentum among international environmental groups which say it would be a symbolic gesture of intent in support of the recent removal of pangolins from Chinese pharmacopoeia.

On June 6 there was an official declaration by China’s State Forestry and Grassland Administration that it had elevated pangolins from a Class 2 animal to the level of a Class 1 animal, affording pangolins the highest protection nationally. This provides for a penalty of 10 years’ imprisonment for those caught hunting, killing, smuggling or trading pangolins – giving them the same protected status in China as giant pandas.

Three days later the 2020 edition of Chinese pharmacopoeia was officially published without pangolins or their derivatives listed as approved ingredients.

Three days later the 2020 edition of Chinese pharmacopoeia was officially published without pangolins or their raw derivatives listed as approved ingredients. It was not yet clear whether pangolins have also been removed from a separate section of the pharmacopoeia as an ingredient in approved patent medicines.

Pangolin meat is consumed as a delicacy throughout Asia, but it is the scales that account for 90% of the illegal trade. They are used in Chinese traditional medicine as cures for a variety of ailments that purport to clear blockages, disperse swelling, expel pus, alleviate difficulty with lactation and poor circulation.

“This announcement, effectively closing the legal sale of pangolin scales, shuts the last major loophole in pangolin protection efforts,” said Peter Knights, chief executive of WildAid, a United States-based environmental organisation.

Knights said he hoped the Chinese government would do something to raise awareness of the important change. Burning or crushing the scales – as has been done with ivory by other governments – would send a clear signal to the public that use of pangolin scales is no longer permitted, he said.

The African Pangolin Working Group initiated the call this week for a public burning of officially approved government stockpiles of pangolin scales that have been used legally for Chinese medicine and dispensed to some 700 state-certified hospitals.

Professor Ray Jansen, head of the group, said he has counted 60 commercially produced remedies in Chinese pharmacopoeia that use pangolin scales and are distributed through more than 200 pharmaceutical companies.

Investigations by Oxpeckers in 2019 showed there has been a dramatic increase in the quantity of pangolin scales trafficked from Africa to Asia over the past decade to feed this demand. Last year alone, a total of 97 tons of scales were confiscated en route from Africa to Asia – the equivalent of 150,000 illegally poached African pangolins, with a wholesale value of around $500-million before being processed for use and marked up for retail sale, Jansen said.

Jansen appealed for a worldwide burning of all stockpiles of pangolin scales held in official custody, mentioning at least five tons of scales in Nigeria that are currently under the guardianship of customs police. Nigeria is Africa’s key pangolin export country, according to this Oxpeckers exposé.

Secretary general of the China Biodiversity and Green Development Foundation, Jinfeng Zhou, said all officially approved government stockpiles of pangolin scales “must be burnt” to give China credibility. The NGO has been instrumental in persuading the government to upgrade pangolins and to remove them from traditional Chinese medicine.

Zhou said the general public had welcomed the changes but the business owners behind the lucrative trade are a hostile adversary and are in strong opposition to the new status quo. The foundation’s leadership has had to make use of security for protection after a recent arson attack on their offices.

At least 380kg of pangolin scales were seized in Cameroon this week, and two military men were arrested along with a third alleged trafficker in a crackdown on an African pangolin scales trafficking ring. Photo courtesy Eagle Network / Facebook

Burning stockpiles

The burning of stockpiles of ivory by the Kenyan government in 2016 was contentious. It followed a poaching surge in 2012 and 2013 that resulted in the loss of more elephants and rhinos than at any time in the previous two decades. More than 100 tonnes of ivory was stacked up in pyres in Nairobi National Park, representing the tusks of about 6,700 elephants.

Before setting the pyres alight in a ceremonial gesture of support, President Kenyatta sent a message to the world: “No one, and I repeat no one, has any business in trading in ivory, for this trade means death of our elephants and death of our natural heritage.”

This followed a new wildlife law that introduced a maximum penalty of life imprisonment for poaching. While critics disagreed with Kenya’s approach to destroying valuable ivory that could be sold to raise funds for conservation, supporters argued that if ivory has a monetary value it is a tradeable commodity open to abuse by traffickers.

For organisations like WildAid, the challenge going forward is to make consuming pangolins socially unacceptable, not just in China, but also across SouthEast Asia and in parts of Africa, where bushmeat consumption also poses the risk of zoonotic diseases as well as threatening wildlife populations.

“We believe that both the elevated protection of China’s pangolins and their removal from medicine will help to give the public a clear message that pangolin consumption is completely banned and those involved will face stiff penalties,” said Knights. “We hope this will lead to increased collaboration between Chinese customs and African authorities to crackdown on pangolin smuggling.

“The public burning of wildlife contraband has become a definitive declaration of intent on behalf of governments, and burning Chinese pangolin scale stockpiles will be the first of its kind.”

Alexis Kriel is a freelance journalist and projects director of the African Pangolin Working Group. Reporting for this story was supported by #WildEye Asia and the Internews Earth Journalism Network’s Asia Pacific Project.

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