Pangolin numbers have plunged in recent years in part because of Chinese demand. Photo: AP

Put Chinese 'medicinal' products to the test, for sake of rare species

Paul Stapleton says our youth must be taught to question old beliefs

The recent news that three tonnes of pangolin scales worth HK$17 million were found by authorities here in Hong Kong comes as no surprise.

The transshipment of body parts of endangered animals for markets here, and especially mainland China, follows a regular pattern and frequency.

Customs seize a large quantity of an endangered species' body parts. Police (occasionally) arrest the smugglers. And the goods are destroyed.

Weeks or months later, the cycle is repeated for another endangered species.

The part that often creates the biggest news story is ivory from elephants, and while the origin of this product is invariably tragic, the final product forged from this raw material at least does not have its beginnings with myths based on magical health cures.

Pangolin scales are another story. The unfortunate animal from which this "medicinal" product comes has the doubly bad luck to be considered delicious.

The problem is that each generation in this part of the world retains the folk-tale beliefs of their ancestors, yet they now have the resources to consume large quantities of the rare fauna tidbits of these beliefs.

Basically, in this day and age, the pangolin doesn't stand a chance.

For the record, pangolin scales, according to a website on Chinese medicine, are considered salty and cool. These scales promote menstruation and lactation, reduce swelling and are good for reducing pain from arthritis.

While the "cool" scales of pangolins from Africa relieve arthritic pain on this side of the world for a black market price of HK$5,000 a kilogram, the population of pangolins is decimated. In China alone, pangolin numbers have dropped by more than 90 per cent in the past 15 years.

However, there is yet another tragedy here. Simply stated, there is little doubt that an over-the-counter painkiller bought for a fraction of the price almost certainly does a better job of relieving pain. And that leads to the root of the problem.

The only real solution to the extinction taking place before our eyes is education.

Our youth need to be taught to question established beliefs. Instead of blind memorisation of facts, they need to demand evidence for claims.

They need to understand that our present-day cures, such as antibiotics, have emerged from a process based on science, not tales from their parents and grandparents, and the prevailing norms of society.

A way of thinking that encourages questioning the status quo has to be deeply embedded into the education system.

Indeed, pangolin scales may really provide relief from arthritic pain. But have they been put through double-blind studies and had their chemical properties isolated and actually shown to work as claimed?

Asking such an uncomfortable question often triggers very defensive reactions. Claims of cultural heritage and tradition are immediately hauled out.

Without a doubt, respect for culture is critically important. But is it more important than our health and the existence our mammalian cousins?

In the meantime, the suspect in the pangolin case is reportedly out on bail. Presumably, having culpability for the killing of an estimated 8,000 members of an endangered mammal is not crime enough to throw away the key.

Rather, the maximum fine is HK$50,000 and six months in prison.

This article appeared in the South China Morning Post print edition as: Chinese medicinal folk tales endanger world's pangolins