Tipping the Scales

21 February is World Pangolin Day, and anyone who follows this blog knows I have a soft spot for the scaly anteater that is being rapidly hunted into extinction.

The ongoing decimation of the slow and strange pangolin is a grim illustration of the long-lasting impact greed and lack of political willpower can have on fellow inhabitants on the planet.

Pangolin in defensive position. Source: Project Pangolin

Pangolin in defensive position.
Source: Project Pangolin

Pangolin scales are used in traditional medicine, mostly in China and Vietnam. I found a site which promises to be a “complete guide to proven herbal remedies.” Note the word ‘proven’.

It lists pangolin scales as being composed of “stearic acid, cholesterol, N-butyl tricosylamide, cyclo (L-seryl-L-tyrosyl), cyclo (D-seryl-L-tyrosyl), and other 18 kinds of microelements” and “16 types of free amino acids.”

This makes it sound like pangolin scales have a chemical composition uniquely suited to medicinal uses. It does not highlight that pangolin scales, along with rhino horn and goat hooves and human fingernails, all have the same basic composition, and are all made of keratin.

I have no doubt that practitioners and adherents of traditional medicines believe in what they are doing with pangolin scales, and by extension, the consumption of pangolin flesh, especially that of unborn pangolins.

However, the same web site volunteers that most practitioners have been substituting buffalo horn for ‘medicinal’ rhino horn since the 1990s due to poaching and legal issues.

Rhino horn.

Rhino horn.

So if one kind of horn can simply be substituted for another, from entirely different animals, why not just substitute human nail cuttings for pangolin scales?

In the end, they all have approximately the same medicinal value beyond that of a placebo, namely, none.

Traditional medicines were born in a time of fewer humans and more animals. Harvesting these animals from the wild until they are all gone is a ridiculous, illegal and shameful undertaking for all concerned, from those who poach to those who consume.

An African tree pangolin (Manis tricuspis) climbs a tree. Source: British Museum

An African tree pangolin climbs a tree.
Source: British Museum

The various species of critically endangered pangolins (and the rhino, and the elephant, and all the other iconic and lesser known animals being hunted to extinction) have a place in the world, but it’s not in a sack, being traded for every-increasing amounts of money to satisfy our own greed for better health or more income.

So on this World Pangolin Day, whip up a Happy Pangolin cocktail, celebrate the pangolins and other animals staying right where they belong, and celebrate all those people who are working hard to achieve that goal, maybe make a donation, and most importantly, maybe have a conversation with someone else about not supporting the illegal trade of any animal or plant.

Save Pangolins

IUCN SSC Pangolin Specialist Group

Tikki Hywood Trust (Africa)

Save Vietnam’s Wildlife

Project Pangolin

Pangorarium (Facebook) – keep up with events and newsWorldPangolinDay2015-640x669

Pressing Issues

Tree pangolin (Manis tricuspis) Photo: PALF Project for the Application of Law for Fauna Republic of Congo

Tree pangolin (Manis tricuspis)
Photo: PALF Project for the Application of Law for Fauna Republic of Congo

I was sitting in my office today, wondering – as I sometimes do – how to write about pangolins. As I often do.

There was an unaccustomed sound outside, something that broke above the unrelenting rain we’ve had over the past few days. Children’s voices, a lot of them. I stood to look out and find dozens of little kids walking past our house, which lies on a quiet cul-de-sac.

It turns out they had been invited by my neighbor to experience the fine art of apple pressing first hand. The tiny village school only has 90 children from kindergarten through fifth grade – this must have been almost a third of the school.

Photo: PK Read

Photo: PK Read

They stood and watched as my neighbor – whose family has been pressing apple juice from their orchards for generations – loaded a small press with the season’s apples, then pressed the caramel-colored juice out into a bucket.

The sweetness of the best apple juice I personally have ever tasted should remain in their memories, even if the details of apple pressing might not.

Photo: PK Read

Photo: PK Read

The apple pressing visit is an exercise in teaching the next generation that apple juice doesn’t originate in plastic jugs any more than meat originates in styrofoam packaging.

Even more, it’s about raising awareness of old skills and habits that are going extinct.

Phot: PK Read

Phot: PK Read

What we take in through our own experience, through pleasure, through a moment outside life’s regular classroom, can leave such a lasting mark. So much of what we learn as small children is not directly remembered in detail, but in a sense of what is good, and what is not.

And so to the pangolin.

There’s a new game out, designed by the maker of Angry Birds, that’s meant to raise awareness of the endangered pangolin.

A pangolin introduces itself to, what else, angry birds. Image: Rovio Entertainment

A pangolin introduces itself to, what else, angry birds.
Image: Rovio Entertainment

The pangolin, otherwise known as the scaly anteater, has the dubious distinction of being the most illegally traded mammal on the planet. Its numbers are dwindling faster than conservationists can count, its habits and place in the environment are disappearing faster than researchers can follow.

An excellent study in the Journal of Ethnobiology and Ethnomedicine examined the reasons animals are used for medicinal purposes, ranging from a belief in traditional practices to the unavailability and expense of modern medicine (as well as a more generalized distrust of Western medicine).

Then there’s the profit end of the stick, the money to be made by selling the precious commodities of ever scarcer animal parts.

Working at cross-purposes to conservationist interests, ‘zootherapeutic’ practices show no sign of diminishing even as the animals upon which they rely go extinct.

Pangolin Illustration: Claire Scully via Aeon (with an interesting discussion of pangolins and physics)

Illustration: Claire Scully via Aeon (with an interesting discussion of pangolins and physics)

Many efforts to stop the use of pangolin flesh and scales for traditional medicines are underway; few of them are quite as playful as Roll with the Pangolin, launched today by the Tikki Hywood Trust in Zimbabwe in collaboration with United for Wildlife and Rovio Entertainment, makers of Angry Birds.

The game is meant to raise awareness of the pangolin and other endangered animals as well as the dangers of the illegal animal trade, as United for Wildlife head Prince William states, an amazing animal goes extinct that many haven’t even heard of yet.

Sweet juice and silly games, simple ways to get a message across, something that might just change the attitudes of a lifetime.

Playing Favorites

red-scale-endangered-rwpAs with anything else, there tend to be trends and favorites when it comes to endangered animal species. The polar bear, the orang-utan, the rhinoceros, the tiger, the lion are the iconic poster animals of conservation. The animals that draw attention, affection, and donations. We like to identify with our favorites, and like to think that our favorite animal says something about who we are as individuals.

They are often the alpha creatures of their ecosystems, the main hunters or the largest animals. Maybe it’s in human nature to associate ourselves with the big guys. And from the standpoint of conservation, it’s not the worst approach. Saving the big guys, by definition, means trying to save all the other elements that support their survival. The ecosystems, the prey, and territory.

And then there are the little guys. The ones that fill a niche between smallest and largest, or look like any number of other, similar animals, or are too little known to achieve star conservation status.

These forgotten species come from all corners of the animal world, from snails to clams to sloths to owls. Or, until recently, the pangolin.

What prompted me to write this today, however, was the small news item that a famous pop singer, Lady Gaga, was bitten by a slow loris that had been brought in as a prop for her music video, which was being shot in Los Angeles.

Loris faces Source: Wikipedia / Lydekker, R. (1904)

Loris faces
Source: Wikipedia / Lydekker, R. (1904)

 There was another recent slow loris story when Rihanna had her photo taken with a captive loris in Phuket, Thailand, last year. I’m pretty sure neither of them knew that the slow loris population is rapidly decreasing, and that whoever held a slow loris up next to them had directly contributed to that decline.

All eight species of the slow loris (genus Nycticebus) are currently listed as vulnerable or endangered, due to their popularity in the pet trade, or to their supposed medicinal values. The slow loris is a small primate that doesn’t travel well, it doesn’t breed well in captivity, and it doesn’t make a good pet. I won’t even go into the unspeakable treatment undergone by the slow loris to make it ‘suitable’ for handling. But it has those adorable eyes.

The total number of animal species on Earth is estimated at 8.7 million.  Source: National Geographic / IUCN

The total number of animal species on Earth is estimated at 8.7 million.
Source: National Geographic / IUCN

I suppose, and hope, that the slow loris will win its conservation advocates, perhaps even aided by these stories, because it is particularly cute and looks more like a toy than like a real animal. With any luck, these stories won’t make more people head out to the markets where the slow loris is sold openly, in spite of its status and the ban in all countries on selling it or any of its parts.

I suspect the multitude of endangered arthropods and molluscs won’t have it as easy. The endangered list grows longer by the day, even as there are efforts in the United States to roll back the Endangered Species Act.

It requires a widening of the gaze to stop playing favorites, changing our habits, and an acknowledgement that not all creatures are simply there for our amusement and consumption.