The coronavirus has now killed more than 17,000 people and infected more than 400,000 across the world
The small, shy and scaled mammal is the most trafficked animal in the world, with at least Over 5000 being poached in habitats in Asia and Africa every day.
Chinese people believe its scales – when ground into powder – can be used in medicine to treat a wide range of ailments from arthritis to cancer or asthma.
To feed the appetite for pangolin scales and meat, thousands are sold around the world beginning their journey in China’s exotic-animal markets.
One such market is the Huanan Seafood Wholesale Market in Wuhan, the epicentre of the coronavirus epidemic.
Samples of the virus show it closely resembles strains of SARS which was proven to have come from bats.
Coronavirus is also believed to have been transmitted from bats to humans.
Bats could not have been the direct source of the outbreak however, because none were sold or found at the market, with most bat species hibernating during the season the outbreak happened.
This means there had to be an ‘intermediary host’ and at first the culprits were thought to be snakes which could have eaten bats and transmitted the virus to humans.
Now, Chinese scientists believe the pangolin could in fact be the missing link.
Research conducted by the South China Agricultural University found the genome sequence of coronavirus in pangolins was a 99 per cent match to that in infected human patients.
Mistreatment of pangolins
Not everyone is convinced though and experts have called for China to release more data.
A University of Cambridge expert Professor James Wood who specialises in infectious diseases believed the similarity in the virus between humans and pangolins could be the result of the animal being contaminated in a “highly infected environment”.
If the illegal animal trade is ultimately found to be the cause of the outbreak then experts fear the root of coronavirus will be difficult to trace.
While certain cultures believe in the medicinal properties of pangolin scales, science reveals the animal’s armour is only made of keratin – exactly what our own hair and fingernails are made of.
This knowledge has not slowed the lucrative industry of trafficking pangolins, causing them to become critically endangered.
Besides their scales, the animal’s meat is often served on the tables of the wealthy as a sign of privilege and power. Some are even killed on the table in front of diners to prove the meat is genuine pangolin.
Then there are those who enjoy eating skinned pangolin foetuses which are floated in wine or soup and believed to be an aphrodisiac.
Given their scaled sell for around £3,000 per kilogram and a single pangolin can cost £11,000 the pangolin population in China has fallen by almost 94 per cent since the 1960s with people eager to cash in on the delicacy.
News of vast quantities of pangolin being seized in ports across Asia and Africa have become frighteningly common such as the 4.4. tonnes of scales in Cameroon last June and 4,000 pangolins found at a seafood warehouse in Indonesia in 2018.
This aside, most people in the western world barely know they exist.
As Prince William said once: “Pangolins run the risk of becoming extinct before most people have even heard of them!”
In 2016, pangolins were afforded the highest level of protection by the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES).
The protective order bans the practice of selling pangolins but multiple investigations have revealed they are still traded illegally.
Protection societies dedicated to preventing the trade of pangolins have also been set up including savepangolins and IUCN SSC Pangolin Specialist Group.
On Saturday, February 15 was World Pangolin Day.
Pangolins look like scaly anteaters that in the wild spend their days sleeping in hollow trees or underground holes.
They hunt at night for their prey which is mostly insects which they catch with their sticky tongues that can grow up to 16 inches long and is rooted at their pelvis.
They are toothless and poor-sighted but have sharp jaws used to dig deep through mounds and hang from trees they climb. They are also able to swim long distances if necessary.
Highly intelligent, the pangolin is a solitary creature and cannot be farmed, they always falter in captivity, despite the best attempts of zoos to keep them.They only get together once a year to mate, the male attracting the female’s attention with a pool of urine or faeces.
Babies are abandoned by their mothers after two years.
So unusual are these pre-historic animals that they have their own mammal sub-category called Pholidota. This is largely because they are believed to be the only scaled mammal.
Their defence mechanism is also something to behold. Faced with danger they hiss, puff themselves out and lash their sharp tails about but failing that they roll into a ball.
These techniques have fared them well against their natural predators such as lions but hey do not stand a chance against the guns and traps used by poachers.
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