There’s a well-known old American film called It’s A Wonderful Life. It stars Jimmy Stewart as George Bailey, a good and generous businessman who finds himself in deep financial trouble. A banker, the infamous cinematic villian named Mr. Potter, reminds a desperate George Bailey that as a last resort, Bailey has a life insurance policy. “You’re worth more dead than alive,” scoffs Mr. Potter, for whom the value of life can only be measured in its monetary amount.
And so to the Cape Pangolin.
The young pangolin above is one of the first Cape Pangolins ever born in captivity. It is the result of the conservation efforts of the Rare & Endangered Species Trust (REST) in Namibia. An adult pangolin had been bought by someone from a street vendor, and then turned over to the REST group. The adult was a pregnant female who gave birth at the REST facilities.
In terms of monetary value, this pinecone-scaled creature is in the negative area. It cost the person who rescued it from the street vendor an unknown amount, and is costing donation money and time with the REST team.
On the other hand, if this little pangolin were to enter the international illegal trade cycle by getting captured and shipped off to China, it would be worth a lot more, at least by the measurements we use to talk about ‘value’ . The most recent estimate I could find was $1000/kilo of fresh pangolin meat, with prices rising as the pangolin populations dwindle and disappear.
Now, if that little pangolin were to make it alive to a certain kind of restaurant in Vietnam or China, catch the eye of a certain kind of consumer and get chosen to end up in a bowl of soup, it would be a very valuable pangolin indeed, if we are only using money as our measure. This bowl of pangolin soup could cost up to $700.
If the restaurant owner were to harvest and sell the scales – and at these prices, it would be a foolish owner who didn’t – the pangolin might be worth another $175/kilo of scales.
We don’t have a measurement for what a pangolin is worth in its natural environment, or what it’s worth to its natural environment.
For example, the loss of elephants to some forests is worth most of the large trees because the elephants aren’t there to carry and distribute large seed pods. And the loss of the large trees has a knock-on effect of loss in habitat, biodiversity, and habitat survival. But until that habitat has something humans value – by which I mean something we can monetize – then none of that tends to mean much.
For the time being, however, this young pangolin has landed in one of the few places of humans don’t value the (utterly fabricated) medicinal qualities of its meat and scales, or the sad boasting rights of being able to afford a nearly extinct animal on one’s plate.
But unless it stays under the protective wing of its rescuers, this pangolin will continue to be worth more dead than alive.