Deepa is a freelance researcher and journalist. She writes and makes documentaries and videos.
The Ant-eaters of the Hollow Trees
Pangolins are not reptiles as many assume but mammals like us. They are altogether eight species belonging to the order of Pholidota and the family, Manidae. The species are,
Black-bellied pangolin (Phataginus tetradactyla)
White-bellied pangolin (Phataginus tricuspis)
Giant Ground pangolin (Smutsia gigantea)
Temminck’s Ground pangolin (Smutsia temminckii).
Indian pangolin (Manis crassicaudata)
Philippine pangolin (Manis culionensis)
Sunda pangolin (Manis javanica)
Chinese pangolin (Manis pentadactyla).
The first four listed above are seen in Africa and the rest in Asia. The scales of a Pangolin are made of a substance called keratin, which is the same ingredient in our fingernails. The scales are not ornamental and when attacked, they lash out at the attacker and protect the Pangolin. Pangolins eat ants, termites, and other insects. Living in hollow trees and burrows, they come out only in the nighttime and are solitary animals except when they are mating. Some fun facts about Pangolins are that they can hang by their tail from tree branches and their tongues are longer than their bodies. They curl up into the shape of a ball when frightened and would just roll away from the predator.
The New ‘Villains’ of the Pandemic
Many studies suggest with some level of certainty that the Covid 19 virus jumped into the human body from bats through another host, the Pangolins. Please remember that it is not the Pangolins to blame but the illegal wildlife trade in Asia, and the unnecessary and dangerous practice of humans eating Pangolins as a delicacy and using their scales in herbal medicine. Weigh this also against the fact that two species of Pangolins are listed in the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species as critically endangered. It just suffices to know that we increase our risk by eating mammals from the wild. Viruses do not find it easy to jump from one species to another and nature has put this bouncing level quite high for a reason- to keep all the species safe and sound. These jumps are called zoonotic spillover by scientists. Scientists have estimated that out of the 1.67 million unidentified viruses and the 1400 known viruses that exist in nature, about 0.7 million can make zoonotic spillovers.
How the Viruses Jump Species
As I mentioned, it is not easy for the virus to jump. Many pre-conditions/barriers keep them not able to do so. They are,
- The host animal has to carry the virus
- The host animal has such a virus load that it sheds it
- Humans have to come in extremely close contact with the infected animal
- The virus must have the ability to infect humans, having the right protein to bind itself to a human cell.
- The virus must have the ability to multiply inside the human body
- Humans must be able to spread the virus
As we can understand by common sense, it is far-fetched to think that all these conditions align perfectly at a single moment by accident. However, this was what exactly happened in the cases of Ebola and Covid 19. The body of any host animal of a virus evolves to constantly fight and get out of the clutches of the virus that infects it. This fight goes on inside the bodies of Bats and Pangolins. Unfortunately, this fight triggers the virus to evolve and adapt to another species as a host. This is what causes spillovers.
Pangolins in Wet Market
The Wet Markets: An Ideal Place for Virus Spillovers
In the Wuhan wet market of China, humans are always in close contact- touching level of contact, butchering level of contact, and eating level of contact- with wild animals. The gory pictures of all kinds of wild and domestic animals displayed, both live and dead, for selling as edible meat inside the Wuhan market are still fresh in our minds. However, have we learned a lesson from these images? The answer is a doom-filled no.
The Pangolin Trafficking
Pangolins are among the most trafficked mammals in Asia. China and Vietnam are the epic centres of this illegal trade. According to one estimate, one million Pangolins were illegally caught and sold in the last decade alone. Another estimate is that 200000 Pangolins are traded and eaten in Asia alone every year. The African figures could be equally high. No surprise because humans are the only natural predators that Pangolins have, scales and all not being a deterrent to the evil intelligence of the Homo sapien hunters.
In 2016, under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES), all the countries around the world had agreed to ban the legal trade of Pangolins that was going on in many of them. If that agreement had materialised, we would not have fallen prey to the Covid 19 pandemic.
In 2020, in the aftermath of the Covid 19 outbreak, China delisted Pangolin scales from the traditional Chinese medicine pharmacopoeia making it illegal to use the scales as medicine. However, international newspapers keep reporting that China is still allowing pharmaceutical companies to use Pangolin scales from the national repository which seems to have an unlimited supply given the quantities being distributed as of today. The companies are still allowed to sell Pangolin products. The most common medicinal use of Pangolin scales is supposedly to assist lactation in new mothers. Modern medicine has so many effective alternatives to Pangolin scales for improving lactation and it is crazy to continue the practice at the risk of human extinction presented by Covid 19. The price of a Pangolin in the open market has been around $250 per kilo. Even Pangolin foetus is consumed as a luxury food and aphrodisiac. Online platforms and illegal markets still sell them not only in China but worldwide.
New Studies Connect Covid 19 Strongly to Pangolins
A new study published in Frontiers in Public Health in March 2022 has confirmed the scientists’ longstanding doubts once again. The batch of confiscated Pangolins from Vietnam upon which the study was conducted had Covid 19 virus in them. This is in addition to the similar results that came by testing the Pangolins confiscated in China earlier. When viewed from a scientific perspective, finding the virus in two unrelated batches is strong proof that this virus might have jumped to humans from Pangolins.
The New Traditional Food Market Directives
In 2021 April, the WHO, United Nations Environmental Programme (UNEP), and the International Organisation for Animal Health (OIE) had collectively issued an interim guideline for governments asking all countries to “suspend the trade in live caught wild animals of mammalian species for food or breeding purposes and close sections of food markets selling live caught wild animals of mammalian species as an emergency measure unless demonstrable effective regulations and adequate risk assessments are in place." The guidance report says that when wild animals are kept in cages and pens in the wet markets and slaughtered there, the blood, body fluids, faeces, and other waste material contaminate the area. As the workers in the market are in constant contact with this contamination, there is a high risk of virus spillovers. The Lassa fever, the Marburg Haemorrhagic fever, Nipah, Ebola, and Covid already have originated from wildlife. There could be many more viruses waiting and evolving to jump over. The farming of wild animals is another illegal practice prevalent in many parts of the world and prone to the same risk.
The survival of the human species will depend on what lessons we learn from the Covid 19 pandemic. One thing is for sure, we need to leave the wild animals such as Pangolins, Civets, and Monkeys to themselves and be less greedy in matters of taste and palate.
How do viruses leap from animals to people and spark pandemics? Alla Katsnelson, c&en, can.acs.org
Pangolin Fact Sheet, Nature, pbs.org
China still allowing the use of pangolin scales in traditional medicine, Jonathan Watts, The Guardian, theguardian.org
The most trafficked mammal you have never heard of, John D. Sutter, edition.cnn.com
Reducing public health risks associated with the sale of wild animals of mammalian species in traditional food markets, Interim Guidance, https://cdn.who.int/media/docs/default-source/food-safety/ig--121-1-food-safety-and-covid-19-guidance-for-traditional-food-markets-2021-04-12-en.pdf?sfvrsn=921ec66d_1&download=true
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.
© 2022 Deepa