Manis javanica: The Pangolin Strikes Back (Part the First)

The Chinese pangolin is a mammal that is covered in scales and which resembles an armadillo but behaves more like an anteater. It is now a critically endangered species, but was commonly found in forests and grasslands across southern China, parts of Southeast Asia, Nepal, India, Bangladesh, and Nepal. The sheer scale (no pun intended) of poaching and trafficking has decimated the population. And despite protection measures, pangolin meat is still considered a delicacy, its scales also being used in traditional medicine. 

Manis javanica, to give it its biological name, has no defence against humans, lacking even teeth. The underside is soft and unprotected, and poachers often use dogs to find pangolins in their burrows and dig them out. When threatened by predators such as big cats, the pangolin quickly rolls into a tight, scale-covered ball.

Now the world has done the same. But the enemy without — the coronavirus SARS-CoV-2 — is such a small aggressor, one which can only be seen under an electron microscope, that every individual offers easy ingress. 

Many scientists claim that the virus jumped from an animal host, in this case a bat, to the pangolin as an intermediary host. One research team searched DNA and protein sequences isolated from pangolin tissues for similar strings in SARS-CoV-2. The researchers identified protein sequences in sick animals' lungs that were 91% identical to the human virus proteins. Moreover, the receptor binding domain of the spike protein from the pangolin coronavirus had only five amino acid differences from SARS-CoV-2, compared with 19 differences between the human and bat viral proteins. This evidence points to the pangolin as the most likely go-between host for the new coronavirus.

So why are pangolins still being sold at wet markets in China? Even a brief and superficial glance at Chinese historical writings from the Tang dynasty of 7th to 10th Century reveals that the meat of pangolins was believed to cause ailments, and not actually cure any. Apparently, it tastes bitter and was believed to be poisonous. “Beiji Qianjin Yaofang” (备急千金要方), a collection of prescriptions compiled by the alchemist Sun Simiao, advised in 652: “There are lurking ailments in our stomachs. So do not eat the meat of pangolins, because it may trigger them and harm us.” And in the 16th Century the “Bencao Gangmu” (本草纲目) a Compendium of Materia Medica, Li Shizhen, a herbalist, naturalist and physician, warned that people who eat pangolin are prone to “contract chronic diarrhoea, and then go into convulsion and get a fever.”

This is not the point to criticise an entire nation for failing to heed the warnings of ancient physicians. A fair target, however, is the inherent culture that legitimises the consumption of an animal we might do best to leave alone. It is the culture of status.

Pangolins are considered a delicacy in many Far East cultures. But it is being eaten to death, this unsustainable harvest fuelled by two factors: meat and myth. In Africa, pangolins are extensively hunted for bush meat. The main factor tipping the creature toward extinction, however, is its mythic power in traditional medicine. Pangolins are today highly prized in Vietnam and China, a result of a wholly unfounded belief that their blood and scales (which are actually made of keratin) are somehow medically beneficial. One might as well just chew one's fingernails. The pangolin is seen as a kind of walking medicine chest, and animals are being slaughtered mercilessly, ostensibly to cure everything from asthma to cancer.

The price of pangolin parts has thus soared, with scales now valued at about well over €1000 a pound. Here is the nub: given its exorbitant price, pangolin meat is seen as a status symbol. Pangolin-foetus soup (this is not for the faint-hearted) allegedly costs as much as €1500 a bowl; in some restaurants, it is possible to order a live pangolin, and have it delivered to your table, whereupon its throat is slit and its blood is added to your glass of wine. 

The pangolin however, that apparently defenceless creature, has just struck back. 

. . . to be continued