China continues to allow the use of the world’s most illegally trafficked mammals, pangolin for traditional medicine despite promises to crack down on the trade. A new report by the Environment Investigation Agency (EIA) exposes the Chinese Communist Government’s pangolin trade deception. Four months ago, Chinese state media reported that pangolin scales had been removed from traditional medicines but the new research has found it is still business as usual.
The EIA’s Pangolin Product Survey 2020 reveals online sales platforms such as eBay and Taobao continue to advertise pangolin products, while major pharmaceutical companies, including the leading China Beijing Tong Ren Tang Group, offer similar items directly on their websites.
The researchers in the report ‘Smoke and Mirrors’ found 221 companies had been licensed to sell items containing pangolin scales, which appeared as an ingredient in 64 different products. 56 of these companies actively advertising medicinal products claiming to contain pangolin online.
The watchdog group said this revealed major loopholes in China’s regulations that needed to be closed if the government is serious about protecting endangered wildlife.
Pangolin have almost disappeared in China because of a medically unproven belief that a broth containing the scales has medicinal qualities, including helping women who have problems lactating. Over recent decades the circle of slaughter and smuggling has steadily widened to neighbouring nations, then south-east Asia, and now Africa.
An estimated 200,000 pangolins are consumed each year in Asia, of which Chinese traditional medicine is the main driver. The latest world wildlife crime report by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime says 71 per cent of pangolin scale seizures were destined for China. Vietnam is another major market.
Hopes for change were raised this summer when the Chinese government, which is due to host a global biodiversity summit, announced that pangolin scales had been removed from the official listing of approved ingredients in the traditional pharmacopoeia.
It won international kudos and, along with President Xi Jinping’s announcement of more ambitious cuts to carbon emission, prompted optimism that China was ready to take on an environmental leadership role, in contrast to the negligence of the US under Donald Trump.
But the EIA report reveals huge gaps in Chinese enforcement. The government continues to allow pharmaceutical companies to use pangolin scales from the national stockpile, which is “shrouded in secrecy and never seems to run out”. A related report earlier this year found China’s medical insurance system was still reimbursing users for traditional remedies containing pangolin, which undermined the broader goal of reducing the illegal trade.
“China has taken some half measures but not gone the full way in banning the use of pangolin scales in medicine,” said Chris Hamley, a senior pangolin campaigner at the EIA. “Given the massive illegal trade and weak regulation internally, it is very likely that pharmaceutical companies are using illegal scales. Our report found a whole bunch of those.”
Hamley said, “amid mounting concerns about the role of wildlife trade in causing the coronavirus pandemic, it is critical that the Chinese Government ends all legal use of pangolin scales, instead of allowing the multi-billion dollar TCM industry to carry on as usual”. He further added, “the Government claims the pangolin scales used in medicines come from a national stockpile but it is a stockpile shrouded in secrecy and never seems to run out. Demand is being met by trafficking from across Africa and Asia; the vast majority of pangolin scale shipments seized from illegal trade are ultimately bound for China”.
He called on the National People’s Congress of the ruling Communist Party to close the loopholes when it reviews China’s wildlife protection law. Companies and their European investors could also make declarations not to use pangolin scales, which can be replaced by other herbal products. The international community could also use the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (Cites) to encourage nations to take tougher action to regulate domestic markets.
“By keeping the door open for the TCM industry to exploit pangolins, the Chinese Government is undermining international efforts to end the global pangolin trafficking crisis and fuelling transnational organised crime,” observed Hamley.