Making Choices

I was doing some early morning grocery shopping this morning, and I was buying avocados. Above the avocado bin were two types of produce bags: a roll of the thin plastic bags, and a stack of bags made of recycled paper.

This might seem like a tangential story to begin a post about World Pangolin Day with, but bear with me for just a moment.WorldPangolinDay2016-640x729


If you read this blog, you know which one I took. And I only took a paper sack because I’d forgotten to bring along the ones we save for re-use.

A man next to me reached past me and grabbed the end of the plastic roll. He pulled, and fought to separate the bag from the roll.

While I was being very picky about choosing avocados with just the right level of ripeness (we Californians are avocado snobs), he went about trying to get the bag open.

As he struggled, he glanced at me, watching me squeeze all the good avocados before he could even open his produce bag.

In a fit of unsolicited do-gooderism, I used that moment to say not only were paper bags easier, but they didn’t take months or decades or centuries to decompose (depending on the kind of plastic). It’s such a small choice to make in the produce aisle, with such a long-term impact.

Of course he went with the plastic bag. But maybe next time he won’t.

Which brings me to the pangolin, also known as the scaly anteater.

Pangolin in defensive position. Source: Project Pangolin

Pangolin in defensive position.
Source: Project Pangolin

Every year, I mark World Pangolin Day, the third Saturday of February. I’ve written on their natural history, why they are unusual, that they are the most trafficked endangered mammal in the world, and that the medicinal uses for their scales are of little more value than eating one’s own fingernails or hair.

I even invented a cocktail called the Happy Pangolin.

In the end, it comes down to making choices.

Pangolin scales for sale Photo: TRAFFIC

Pangolin scales for sale

Legislative choices that are the underpinning for the protection of any endangered species; personal choices that cut the demand that drives the market for poached animals.

A new smartphone application, Wildlife Witness, allows tourists and locals alike to safely report wildlife crime that involves pangolins and other endangered animals, from trafficking to restaurant sales.

The good news is, choices are being made that could help the pangolin survive, provided those choices are implemented quickly enough.

The choices we make every day add up. Let’s keep making them.

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

The Happy Pangolin

It’s the third annual World Pangolin Day, a time to raise awareness of the strange and wondrous animal that is the single most encountered mammal in the illegal global trade in endangered animals.

Pangolin Source: Our Beautiful World

Source: Our Beautiful World

The odd pangolin, a scaly anteater that looks like a cross between a streamlined badger and a pine cone, is captured and consumed in the mistaken belief that its keratin scales hold medicinal value – although they are little different from human fingernails. As the pangolin grows ever more scarce, pangolin flesh, and even the fetuses, are made into pricey soups as a demonstration of luxury consumption.

Pangolin & tongue Source: Platyoctopie / Deviantart

Pangolin & tongue
Source: Platyoctopie / Deviantart

Meanwhile, the eight species of pangolin in the world are rapidly becoming extinct.

In honor of the day, I wanted to make a Happy Pangolin cocktail, a drink that reflected the long anteater tongue, the scales, the ants, and the tart appeal of the pangolin.

I started with this – hard apple cider, a slice of cherimoya fruit (note the black seeds for ants), and a long, slender slice of cucumber for the pangolin tongue. I made a reduction of basil essence, mixed that with cognac, and poured it over the fruit.

Happy Pangolin One The best looking, but blandest cocktail.

Happy Pangolin One
The best looking, but blandest cocktail.

But I was unsatisfied with the taste – too sweet, too bland. A pangolin is many things, but it is not bland.

So I moved on. To kiwi fruit (note the black seeds for the ants) mashed with a bit of sugar and basil, the cucumber tongue, and this time, calvados, prosecco and a scaly garnish of pineapple skin.

Well. It tasted just fine, quite delicious, actually. But it was murky, the basil floated around aimlessly. A third try, mashing together the kiwi and basil, rendered the basil flavor too acidic.

Happy Pangolin Two Tasty, but murky.

Happy Pangolin Two
Tasty, but murky. Ditto for Happy Pangolin Three, which is not shown here.

Finally, running out of cucumber, I made this variation. A bit of brown sugar in the bottom of a glass, followed by half slices of kiwi. Prosecco carefully poured over the fruit (it fizzes easily), followed by a shot of calvados, then a cucumber tongue, a slice of pineapple skin perched on the side, garnished with a sprig of fresh basil.

It’s tangy, refreshing, unexpected and overall, pretty good.

Happy Pangolin Four The current favorite, to be reattempted when I have more cucumber for a longer tongue.

Happy Pangolin Four
The current favorite, to be reattempted when I have more cucumber for a longer tongue.

What did I learn from making a Happy Pangolin for World Pangolin Day?

Much like the campaign to save the pangolin, the road to success is paved with many failed attempts, there is no single way to reach the goal of a Happy Pangolin. Any and all variations must be tried. Tenacity and determination are of paramount importance.

Source: Annimaticus

Source: Annimaticus


Go here to find out what you can do to support an end to killing and trade in pangolins.

Find out more at Annimaticus, at theĀ IUCN-SSC Pangolin Specialist Group, and at Project Pangolin. Let’s help make sure this oddball branch on the Tree of Life doesn’t wither!

The Pangolin branch on the phylogenetic tree. Source: OneZoom

The Pangolin branch on the phylogenetic tree.
Source: OneZoom

And in the meantime, I hope you enjoy a Happy Pangolin with friends this weekend!