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How Do You Solve a Problem Like Pangolin Hunting?

How Do You Solve a Problem Like Pangolin Hunting?

They look like something out of a sci-fi novel: bodies covered in a tight-knit scaled pattern, walking on their hind legs and using their amazingly long front claws for balance, curling up and wrapping their long tails around them in a defensive posture when they’re threatened. Pangolins, also known as scaly anteaters, live throughout the tropics of Africa and Asia, but their numbers are dwindling. They’re threatened by habitat loss and other environmental pressures, but they’re also struggling to combat a thriving illegal trade amongst people interested in using their body parts in traditional Chinese medicine (TCM).

It’s estimated that around 10,000 pangolins are seized annually by conservation officials attempting to disrupt the trade in their scales, which are used as a clarifying and detoxifying ingredient. Yet, evidence suggests the true scale of the trade may be even higher than that, which is unsustainable for animals with a relatively slow replacement rate like the pangolin. Without swift and effective conservation action, the pangolin’s status could become even more precarious, and it might face extinction.

This and other conservation tragedies revolving around animals who are hunted down for ingredients used in traditional medicine can be a complicated cross-cultural issue. While many Western conservation advocates rail at the waste of using animal parts in medicine and insist that they have no medicinal value, TCM practitioners and advocates feel quite differently about the matter. A conservation program focused on belittling traditional cultural and medical practices isn’t likely to succeed — not least because TCM has actually contributed a number of important medical discoveries to the West, including herbs and other organisms that are used in conventional medicine today.

TCM and other cultural traditions relying on animal parts often become targets for Western conservationists, but the solution to helping endangered animals doesn’t lie in perpetuating acrimonious and often racist divides between East and West. After all, Western medicine itself is not without animal derived ingredients. Instead, cross-cultural solutions can focus on a number of ways to protect animals like pangolins and rhinos, without alienating TCM practitioners, many of whom are also concerned about conservation and are willing to consider ways to help conservationists.

Outreach campaigns to clients who rely on TCM are critical, to get them thinking about alternatives. Meanwhile, practitioners can develop new tools for treating conditions that have historically been managed with animal ingredients. TCM relies on a huge library of herbs, fungi, and other ingredients that don’t have to come from animal sources. If their customers are educated about conservation and shown options that allow them to get the care they want without harming animals, it creates a third, humane path that conserves precious species without attacking cultural values and traditions.

Protecting animals doesn’t have to come at the expense of traditional medicine that’s been practiced for centuries across not just China but many other parts of Asia, if conservationists are willing to work with TCM practitioners. While it introduces yet another element into a complex conservation roadmap, it’s an important one; think of trying to cross a river without a bridge and you’ll understand the importance of reaching out and making cross-cultural conservation connections. For animals like the rhino and the pangolin, it can’t come too soon.

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Photo credit: Thinkstock.

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106 comments

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6:48PM PDT on May 11, 2014

People make a big propaganda induced mistake when they think modern Japan and Communist China and Indonesia (and most of corrupt degenerate immoral Asia) have ANY culture or "tradition" whatsoever. They DO NOT. No civilized culture or tradition would eradicate all wildlife and forests for their personal greed. These are evil people. These abominations of humanity will pay any money, break any law, kill or torture any person or animals for their stinking fads and tastes. They do not even care about their own children. A part of China was eating human fetuses, Chinese and Vietnamese poachers are regularly mowed down by African militaries when they're caught sneaking around the African parks, Communist China is a destroyed toxic wasteland not fit for any life. Asian countries has no inhibitions to destroy the future of the earth for their disgusting personal greed, how evil can you get?

4:02PM PDT on Apr 1, 2014

There's no such thing as tradition, it's called blind believe!!! The Chinese and Japanese genes should extinct to make room for the better beings to live without the fear of the invasive humans. Those who hunt for animals are so ignorant, either to kill for entertainment, tropies, or for their valuable parts. It's all an excuse, why not let animals hunt for them. I hope animals start protecting themselves to get rid of those who called themselves humans. It's EVIL!!!! That's what they are.

7:50PM PDT on Mar 25, 2014

Interesting creature. I would hate to think of them being no more.

5:46PM PDT on Mar 23, 2014

I don't understand how they think these magic animal potions work after hundreds of years of them not working. The animals need to be protected.

3:51AM PDT on Mar 23, 2014

I know traditional ideas die hard, but surely education can break through the barriers to protect endangered animals. Even the most ardent supporter of "medicines" made from animal body parts should be able to understand that if these prized animals are hunted to extinction, then they will have to find alternatives, anyway, so why not do the right thing and stop slaughtering them before that happens? If education fails, then treat the killers as lowlife poachers, throw them in jail and lose the key. That might work, too.

2:15PM PDT on Mar 22, 2014

One day we'll wake up and all the animals will be gone. What will we do then? Start killing humans to eat?

4:27AM PDT on Mar 22, 2014

protect all animals

6:27PM PDT on Mar 21, 2014

Rosemary U - thanks for the link - petition signed - and also the great comment. Kudos and a green star to Madeleine F. Again a great comment.

6:01AM PDT on Mar 21, 2014

Sorry, but I don't have to respect a cultural belief that rhino horn will give you an erection or pangolin scales are useful in 'clarification', whatever the hell that is. It's utter hogwash. When there were only a few Chinese who could afford to indulge such asinine magical thinking, it was tragic for the occasional individual rhino that lost it's life, but it wasn't a problem for the species. Now that there are millions of Chinese who can afford to buy these useless potions, the species is on the brink.

I can't wait for China's housing bubble to collapse and take most of the middle class with it.

5:28AM PDT on Mar 21, 2014

Herbs are the best medicine. Humans can use the same herbal plants that animals use. We don't have to extract what they eat from them when we can get the same natural resources from the jungles themselves. We don't have to slaughter our wildlife for medicine! This is terrible! Human greed, greed and more greed will kill us all!!! Humans are not the top of the food chain; but our ignorance is. Kill EVERYTHING so that you have nothing else to live on in the first place. BRILLIANT!!!

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