The pangolin, a quirky animal that looks a bit like a pinecone come to life, has been driven to near-extinction thanks to insatiable Chinese demand for its meat and scales. The latter are especially prized in traditional medicine, based on bogus claims about their health benefits. But now the pangolin appears to have gained an unlikely guardian: Beijing.
This month Chinese authorities and state media—no doubt aware of World Pangolin Day on Feb. 18—have stepped up efforts to discourage people from eating the animal and persuade them that its parts have no medicinal value.
On Feb. 8, police launched an investigation into a 2015 banquet in Nanning, the capital of the Guangxi region, in which local officials served pangolin meat to Hong Kong investors. Bordering Vietnam, the region is known for pangolin smuggling.
A post by the US nonprofit WildAid on Weibo, a social media platform in China, shows scenes from the dinner.
On Feb. 14, authorities in neighboring Guangdong province apprehended a Weibo user after seeing a 2011 post where she bragged about the ”special” taste of fried rice with the animal’s blood and the “richness” of pangolin soup. Meanwhile media reports have reminded readers that fines and jail terms of more than 10 years could await those found guilty of catching, killing, buying, or selling the state-protected animal.
The People’s Daily created about a dozen Weibo posts condemning incidents like the above and stressing that the animal’s parts have no medicinal use. Another newspaper, Zhongyang Guancha, noted in a Feb. 17 editorial (link in Chinese) that “the effectiveness of pangolin scales was actually denied by many traditional Chinese medicine practitioners. In fact, a dozen scales were not as effective as green bean soup, and pangolin meat was not as rich as beef or lamb.”
China’s insatiable demand has made the pangolin the world’s most trafficked mammal, and spurred relentless hunting for it in India, Africa, and Southeast Asia. Just three months after an international trade ban on the species, authorities in Shanghai seized a massive haul of pangolin scales weighing 3.1 metric tons (3.4 tons) and valued at more than $2 million on the black market.
With incentives like that, the pangolin needs all the help it can get.