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[Coronavirus] Pangolins on the edge of extinction : A victim designated guilty

© Julien Faure

Accused of transmitting Covid-19 to humans, pangolin is also the main victim of intense international trafficking to Asia. Hundreds of thousands of pangolins are poached every year in Africa for the Asian medicinal market, threatening the specie of rapid extinction. Reportage in Johannesburg, South Africa, with those who are trying to protect it.

In a dispensary devoted to wild animals in the suburbs of the sweltering metropolis of South Africa, four veterinarians are working around a pangolin. The room is small. Stacks of empty cages hide the wall. Lying on an operating table, the strange anteater covered with scales looks like an ambulant fortress. "He should have been released last week, but an infection has delayed the operation" says Nicci Wright, director of the Wildlife Veterinary Hospital and African Wildlife Commissioner for Human Society International, as she is carefully spreading the scales of the pangolin to clean the wound.

The center, financed by private donations, collects pangolins that police recovers after arresting poachers. Almost every week has a newcomer. A car parks outside. A young volunteer from the center comes down, a pangolin curled up in her arms. She accompanied it all afternoon on a field rich in ants and termites, the basis of his diet. They are unable to feed themselves in captivity. "Give them a bowl filled with ants, they won’t eat it!” says the scientist.

"The pangolins that the authorities send us suffer from the same disorders observed in people with post-traumatic stress" explains Nicci Wright. The animal emits no sound. As if it keeps everything inside. Traumatized by dreadful conditions of detention by the poachers, without water or food, some pangolins are then frightened by male voices and the smell of cigarettes. The recovery phase takes a few weeks before they can be released into private game reserves in South Africa, the only possible place to avoid poaching.

In 2018, 37 pangolins were saved by the center. A poor record for this mammal at the top of the most poached species in the world. How many animals are killed each year? "You can add all rhinos, elephants, lions and tigers and multiply by 1,000!” worries Ray Jansen, doctor of zoology and founder of the African Pangolin Working Group with Nicci Wright. In his modest office of the Department of Science at Tshwane University of Technology in Pretoria, the professor talks fast. As if time was running out, for him too. The future of pangolin has considerably darkened. "At least one million pangolin have been decimated in Africa in the last two years. In twenty years, they will be gone "warns the researcher. There are eight species of pangolin distributed in the forests of Southeast Asia and sub-Saharan Africa. In the last century, just like Asian rhinos, elephants, lions or tigers, pangolins were all over China.

Its scales have been part of the Chinese pharmacopoeia since the sixth century. Made of keratin, like our nails and our hair, they are used against various cancers and diseases. But no scientific study has ever proved it.
In Vietnam, its flesh is considered as a very delicate meal and a sign of wealth. In some restaurants, the cost of a pangolin dish can reach 2,000 euros. "The Asian market, especially Chinese, has decimated Asian pangolin populations, which have become extremely rare today. With a birth every eighteen months, females are unable to renew the population, " says Ray Jansen. As the Asian pangolin is very hard to find, traffickers are turning to a new source of supply: Africa.

(Very) protected species.
"When I was working in Sierra Leone and Ghana three years ago, there were pangolin scales on the ground in the local markets, next to other waste," recalls Ray Jansen. Pangolins were considered as bush meat and its scales were of no use. "Asians put a price on it and everything changed," says Ray Jansen.

According to Marcus Cornthwaite, of the specialized NGO Traffic, the increase of police operations and customs seizures as well as improved court procedures highlighted on the hugeness of the poaching in Africa.

As a result, the 183 member states of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES), meeting in 2016 in Johannesburg, gave pangolin the highest level of possible protection. All trade is banned, yet the traffic thrives. And the figures would make one feel dizzy. A study by the Center for International Forestry Research, published in 2018, estimates that the number of pangolins hunted each year in Central African forests between 400,000 and 2.7 million.

In 2018, 40 tons of pangolin scales were seized only on the African continent. This number doubled in 2019: 97 tons of African pangolin scales that left the continent, 70% of this was exported out of Nigeria, the epicenter of the trade. Equivalent of several tens of millions of euros of merchandise and hundreds of thousands of pangolins killed.

Customs officers at Paris-Charles-de-Gaulle airport in France have made two major seizures since 2017. "The goods were declared as avocado chips and fish scales," says Grégory Colent, in charge of targeting and verifying freight. It was actually more than 400 kilograms of pangolin scales.

Tragically, animal markets in Wuhan as the origin of the global coronavirus crisis raise hope for the pangolin. Since January 2020, China has decided to stop reimbursing traditional medicines made of pangolin and is questioning the wildlife markets. Although domestic trade is not banned yet, these decisions mark an important turning point in the government's attitude towards its wildlife animals’ consumption.

"Gentle and peaceful."
In a secret place – for security reasons - Nicci Wright accompanies a pangolin to feed outside the clinic. Standing on both legs, the animal sniffs the ground searching for insects. Suddenly, it sinks, head first, into a termite mound. Its 40 centimeters long sticky tongue and leaves no chance to the insects. It gets out a few minutes later, his stomach full.

"There are few people able to watch this," murmurs the South African vet, who is moved by the plantigrade. Her career has led her to heal hundreds of wildlife species, but none has touched her as much as the pangolin. "From the outside, they look armed and tough, but their nature is gentle and peaceful. They bewitch you, there have something magical... "

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