The pangolin is one of the most fascinating creatures in the world, being the only mammal to also be covered in hard protective scales. Unfortunately, it is these scales that make them a target for poachers, who sell them to be used in Chinese traditional medicine. Their meat is also considered a delicacy in some parts of the world, which is just another reason why pangolins are the world’s most trafficked wild mammal.
It isn’t easy being a pangolin, but it seems this creature may have found an unlikely savior: the COVID-19 virus. As researchers try to find the origins of the virus within animals, the pangolin has been singled out as a potential suspect. And although evidence is inconclusive, it has already prompted the Chinese government to take action. In February, China announced an immediate ban on trading and eating wild animals, including pangolins.
Officials also began shutting down wild animal markets across the country. If more actions against the wildlife trade follow, the incident could prove to be a turning point for pangolin conservation.
The question of whether pangolins contributed to the COVID-19 outbreak will not be settled any time soon—resolving the origin of SARS took years. But it may be crucial to ending the pangolin trade because doing so requires two things. The first is strict enforcement of the rules, which China seems to want to do – it was stepping up enforcement even before the outbreak. The second is for people to stop buying pangolin products. If there is no demand, the illegal trade will become unprofitable, and suppliers will abandon it.
And even if it turns out the pangolin had no role in the coronavirus outbreak, the bad publicity will certainly not boost demand for them.