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China's push to export traditional medicine may doom the dwindling pangolin

Cuc Phuong National Park, Vietnam

IN a rescue centre, a pangolin slowly wakes and uncurls, sniffing out a nighttime feast of ants' eggs, then lapping it up with its implausibly long tongue. One of 74 pangolins rescued from the back of a truck in Vietnam in April, its survival has defied the odds.

This almost mystical creature, looking like a cross between an anteater and an armadillo but unrelated to either, is the world's most trafficked mammal. A million of them are thought to have been poached from the wild in just a decade.

Already almost wiped out in China, the pangolin is fast disappearing from the jungles of the rest of Asia and, increasingly, from Africa, to supply China's booming market in traditional medicine. Now, as China pushes to export traditional medicine around the world under the umbrella of its Belt and Road investment plan, many wildlife experts fear that the animal faces extinction.

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"Traditional Chinese medicine should be a healing force for good, but not at the expense of animal cruelty or the extinction of species," said Iris Ho, wildlife programme manager at Humane Society International.

China's decision to ban the ivory trade at the end of last year gave hope to those battling elephant poaching, "but the real litmus test lies within China's action - or lack of action - in pangolin conservation," she added.

The air of mystery attaching to the reclusive pangolin has been its downfall, sparking an unjustified belief that its scales have magical medicinal properties. In hospitals and pharmacies across China and Vietnam, powder made from pangolin scales is prescribed for a wide range of ailments, including rheumatism, wound infections, skin disorders, coronary heart disease and even cancer.

Mothers take powdered pangolin scales to help them lactate, while men drink pangolin blood or consume foetuses in the belief that this will make them more virile.

The use of pangolins in Chinese medicine dates back thousands of years. A 16th-century document recommends eating their scales to reduce swelling, invigorate blood circulation and promote lactation.

The scales are made of keratin, a fibrous protein that is the main ingredient of hair, feathers, claws and hoofs throughout the animal kingdom. Patients might as well chew their own fingernails.

Pangolins are also served at the dinner table, despite a ban on pangolin meat in China imposed during the 2002-2004 Sars epidemic amid fears that exotic meats could spread disease.

In late 2016, all eight species of pangolin were listed on Appendix One of the Convention on Trade in International Species, making all international trade in them illegal. But that does not obligate China or Vietnam to curb domestic trade - except to the extent that such trade is now sourced mostly from abroad.

Customs officials make regular seizures at China's ports, but the very size of those captures makes depressing reading: In the southern city of Shenzhen, 13 tonnes of scales were seized last November alone, representing tens of thousands of slaughtered pangolins.

Conservation groups are trying to reduce demand by educating people about the dangers facing the pangolin and better ways to treat disease than by consuming keratin.

The China Biodiversity Conservation And Green Development Foundation, a non-profit group, has publicly exposed people selling or consuming pangolin meat, including a Chinese businessman who boasted online of enjoying "pangolin blood fried rice" on a trip to Vietnam. After a social media backlash, he was sacked.

WildAid, whose use of Chinese celebrities to curb demand for ivory and shark fin soup has achieved considerable success, is trying the same approach for pangolins, enlisting actors Jackie Chan and Angelababy in China, and former Miss Universe Pham Huong in Vietnam to front publicity campaigns. It is also trying to persuade traditional medicine practitioners to use alternative treatments.

Nguyen Van Thai, founder of Save Vietnam's Wildlife who runs the rescue centre in Cuc Phuong National Park, said there is still no good strategy for curbing demand for scales or persuading the Chinese government.

"China wants to show its power," he said. "The more pressure you put on them, the more they resist." WP