Editor’s note, January 16, 2020: China’s illegal wildlife trade has come under heavy scrutiny due to probable links with the current coronavirus outbreak. We are revisiting this 2016 op-ed, the views in which are the author’s own.
Do you suffer from meridians that need dredging? Do you wake up in the morning with the need to dispel the body’s stasis? Do you need to activate your blood? Then ask your doctor if ripping scales out of a still-living, endangered pangolin is right for you.
They’ll say no. Because they’re doctors.
September was a good month for pangolin fans. In Johannesburg CITES secured the strongest possible protections for this curious animal, which has been driven to near extinction by (among other things) its use in Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM).
Now, I know you might be thinking: This biased Western writer plans to harangue me with a barbed and prejudiced diatribe about Traditional Chinese Medicine. Yes. Well done. You have correctly predicted your future.
Pangolin scales are made of keratin, found readily in your fingernails. So, a once pervasive creature is being hunted to extinction for something found at the end of every human hand. It is, however, speciously believed in TCM practices that these pangolin scales (again, fingernails) should be dried or roasted. Frying apparently doesn’t work, nor does using them for a marinade in a lamb sous vide; that would be ridiculous. More adventurous chefs—I mean, TCM practitioners—prefer this panacea be used with vinegar or the urine of boys. Pangolins, it would seem, are the pasta of TCM.
Once you’ve decided on your prescription and, presumably, appetizers, you then ingest these fingernails (which, fun fact, taste salty) to relive palsy, motivate lactation, and drain pus.
Just in case there are any Chinese medicine aficionados still reading, it is important to note that there are alternatives to pangolins within Chinese medicine. It burns one’s soul to spread this claptrap, but have you ever considered the thorns of the Chinese honeylocust plant? Perhaps you’re more of a prairie carnation seed sort—it’ll have you lactating like a boss. If neither of those suit you, then you can turn to plain, old, reliable cockleshells. All of these are recognized substitutes for pangolin scales in TCM according to the Chinese Herbal Medicine, Materia Medica. Best of all, these can be obtained without killing an endangered animal and trafficking it across the planet so that you can have better meridian thingamajigs.
The pangolin has seen a long road to its current status of being under imminent threat of extinction, and China’s central authorities have been trying to end the trade in pangolins for some time. Protection of the pangolin began in 1989 with the Wildlife Protection Law of China, and again in 1992 with the Regulations on the Implementation of Protection of Terrestrial Wild Animals. Finally, in 2006, the Regulations on Management of Import and Export of Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora implemented CITES, and further judicial rulings meant longer prison sentence for those found trafficking the animal. None of this ended the practice.
The survival of the pangolin isn’t a Chinese problem. It’s a planetary problem. From Vietnam to Indonesia and Namibia, pangolins are worth a lot of money. It has been estimated that more than a million pangolins (for both their meat and scales) have been illegally trafficked over the past decade. One sting caught 23 tonnes in a week. The Oxford’s Wildlife Conservation Research Unit estimated in 2014 that one pound of pangolin scales could fetch 600 USD. A later study said that they can cost 3,000 USD a kilogram.
Currently, all eight species of pangolin (four in Africa and four in Asia) are endangered or critically endangered. Much of this is due to over hunting in Africa, but the TCM belief that the pangolin fixes everything from cancer to asthma has played a serious role. You can look online to find cancer treatments involving pangolin; here’s a patent for one involving both pangolins and fresh egg yolks. TCM, folks, you can’t make this stuff up. Well, you can. It is made up.
Putting the kibosh on the pangolin as a cure for meridians and slow blood and other imaginary ailments is just the start when it comes to saving the pangolin. The CITES report is a good beginning, but pangolins are an animal China should be proud of, not one that can’t be found.
Cover image from 78b2b.com