National People’s Congress has been asked to consider banning sales of pangolin scales
BEIJING, China––Pangolins, perhaps the cutest and most harmless animal jeopardized by poaching and wildlife trafficking whom hardly anyone has heard of, remain in as much trouble today as yesterday, two years ago, and five years ago, despite news items, activist alerts, and even “Victory!” proclamations recently amplified by social media suggesting that China has banned or may soon ban commerce in pangolin scales.
What’s a pangolin?
Pangolins might best be described as tree-climbing armored nocturnal insectivores.
Pangolins resemble the armadillos of the U.S. South, Southwest, and Central and South America, and also resemble South American ant-eaters.
Yet, despite behavioral and physiological similarities, pangolins appear to be an example of parallel evolution, not actual relatives to either armadillos or ant-eaters.
All eight pangolin species––four indigenous to Asia, four to Africa––were in 2014 added to the International Union for Conservation of Nature “Red List,” meaning “at risk of extinction.”
Pangolins in China
The Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) in 2017 banned international trade in pangolins.
But pangolin scales, used in traditional Chinese medicine to treat a wide range of ailments, some of them life-threatening, remain in huge demand.
The Chinese government may indeed soon prohibit commerce in pangolin scales, for three reasons.
First, pangolin scales have no actual medicinal value, as Chinese doctors know perhaps better than anyone else. People turning to the traditional use of pangolin scales to try to treat cancer, in particular, may delay seeking the medical care they actually need,
Second, pangolins are perhaps more endangered in China than anywhere else.
Embarrassment, but no new action
Third, the contribution of Chinese demand to the decline of pangolins is an ongoing embarrassment to Chinese government officials and business people trying to negotiate contracts to build infrastructure through Africa and the rest of Asia.
However, the Chinese government has not yet taken any new action on behalf of pangolins, despite the March 11, 2019 headline “China Proposes Ban on Pangolins in Traditional Medicine” above a much amplified news item distributed by the Organized Crime & Corruption Reporting Project (OCCRP),
The OCCRP is a project of the Journalism Development Network, a nonprofit organization headquartered in London, England.
The OCCRP news item about pangolins updated a March 7, 2019 posting from the also London-based Environmental Investigation Agency. The Environmental Investigation Agency posting, though otherwise sketchy, was somewhat more accurately headlined “Chinese lawmakers propose a ban on the sale of pangolin products for traditional medicine.”
National People’s Congress
But the proposed ban did not actually come from anyone with direct lawmaking authority in China.
Rather, the rumored impending ban on commerce in pangolin products originated as one of 24 proposals introduced to the 13th National People’s Congress by the Democratic Alliance for the Betterment of Hong Kong, a pro-Beijing and pro-business conservative political party.
The 13th National People’s Congress, held in the Great Hall of the People on the west side of Tiananmen Square, Beijing from March 5 to March 13, 2019, appears to have concluded without any definitive action on behalf of pangolins.
But that was no surprise. The National People’s Congress (NPC), with nearly 3,000 members, though often identified as the largest parliamentary body in the world, is an advisory body, not an entity with direct lawmaking authority.
What the Congress does
“Western media sources commonly describe the NPC as a de facto rubber stamping body,” says Wikipedia, “while some academic sources have asserted that the NPC has recently emerged as an independent and influential force in Chinese politics.”
Either way, what the National People’s Congress does is either ratify legislation already advanced by the Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress, with about 170 members, or––rarely––reject legislative proposals.
Committees within the National People’s Congress may recommend subjects for future legislation. Such a recommendation is what the Democratic Alliance for the Betterment of Hong Kong hoped to obtain on behalf of pangolins.
New Chinese laws evolve slowly
Whether the Democratic Alliance succeeded was not mentioned in the first post-National People’s Congress reportage from either Chinese or international media.
However, each National People’s Congress includes committee decisions on more than 700 proposals from participating regional delegations, few of which become headline items until much later in the legislative process.
From a positive recommendation by a National People’s Congress committee to the enactment of a new law can take anywhere from several months to 15 years, depending on the urgency and scope of the topic addressed.
In the case of pangolins, attention from a National People’s Congress committee could lead to a de facto ban on commerce by the Chinese national wildlife authority and provincial forestry departments, even without any new lawmaking.
Busted in Hong Kong
Though China has been a CITES member nation since 1981, the Endangered Species Import & Export Management Office of the People’s Republic of China has historically not enforced all CITES recommendations.
But especially since the passage of the 2016 Wildlife Protection Law of China, Chinese authorities have cracked down on commerce in pangolin scales, including shipments that are only passing through Chinese ports, on their way to other destinations.
On January 16, 2017, for example, Hong Kong airport inspectors seized 8.3 tons of pangolin scales, believed to have been collected from about 13,800 poached pangolins, along with more than a ton of poached elephant ivory, and arrested two traffickers.
The contraband wildlife parts were apparently collected in Nigeria, flown to Hong Kong from Johannesburg, South Africa, and were to be transferred to a flight to Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam.
If pangolin scales get into China, they can be sold
Once pangolin scales are in China, they can be legally sold.
Article 27 of the 2016 Wildlife Protection Law of China allocates to provincial forestry departments the authority to either issue permits for the sale of pangolin scales, or to suspend issuing permits, depending on their assessment of the status of pangolins in the habitat under their jurisdiction.
From 2008 through 2015, permits were reportedly issued allowing the sale of about 27 metric tons of pangolin scales per year.
If provincial forestry departments simply stop issuing permits allowing the sale of pangolin scales, the proposed national legislation would become redundant, though still necessary to preclude any reversion to the policies prevailing today.
Research & development
“In addition to outright banning the use of [pangolins] in traditional medicine,” the OCCRP said, “lawmakers are advocating for increasing ‘investment in the research and development of pangolin tablet substitutes’ and in ‘promoting the protection of pangolin resources.’”
Continued the OCCRP, “A 2015 report by WildAid,” a San Francisco-based charity working mostly in Southeast Asia, “found that 70% of Chinese citizens surveyed believed pangolin scales could cure rheumatism, skin disorders and infections. They are also thought to cure cancer and arthritis.
“China currently permits the legal use of pangolin scales in clinical treatment and in pharmaceutical manufacturing, and they are listed as an official drug in the Chinese Pharmacopoeia, according to WildAid. The permits are used by designated hospitals and licensed companies that produce and sell TCM products,” the OCCRP report said.
Demand for scales “seems to be surging”
Recounted Science writer Amy Yee on March 13, 2019, without mentioning the 13th National People’s Congress, which was on that day adjourning, “In January, Ugandan officials confiscated thousands of scales, along with pieces of ivory, that likely originated in the neighboring Democratic Republic of the Congo.
“In a February 7, 2019 raid on a warehouse in Kota Kinabalu, Malaysia, customs officers seized 1800 boxes containing 30 tons of frozen pangolins and pangolin parts. Ironically, the wave of interceptions came just before World Pangolin Day, February 16, 2019,” celebrated by pangolin conservationists since 2012.
“Demand for pangolin scales seems to be surging,” Yee continued, “particularly in China and Vietnam, where they are believed to cure ailments ranging from poor circulation and skin diseases to asthma. With Asian species in sharp decline, poachers are increasingly turning to Africa for scales, adding to the bushmeat toll.”
But bushmeat toll is still the biggest threat
The bushmeat toll, Yee explained, is the greatest threat to pangolin survival.
The Chinese and Vietnamese demand for pangolin scales has added an economic incentive for poaching pangolins, but even before traffickers began buying scales––formerly seen as a waste product––residents of Cameroon, Central African Republic, Equatorial Guinea, Gabon, Democratic Republic of Congo, and Republic of Congo may have been killing anywhere from 400,000 to 2.7 million pangolins per year for their own consumption, according to research published in 2017 by a team headed by Daniel Ingram of University College London.
“According to an estimate often used by CITES—which covers international trade only—more than one million pangolins were traded illegally between 2000 and 2013,” Yee observed.
“Slow to bounce back”
This suggests that as large as the Chinese and Vietnamese demand for pangolin scales is, the scales from only a relatively small percentage of the pangolins killed are actually exported to Asian destinations.
Concluded Lee, “Pangolins are slow-breeding and give birth to one offspring a year at most, which means depleted populations are slow to bounce back. They are easily stressed and tend to die in captivity, which makes studying their physiology and behavior difficult. So far, efforts to breed them have largely failed.”