Hong Kong’s Wild Creatures, Part I: Pangolins

It has been a tough year for pangolins. The unique scaly mammals were already critically endangered due to poaching. Then they were blamed for Covid-19.

Pangolins are prized in Chinese medicine because their scales are believed to improve blood circulation and help with a huge assortment of conditions from infertility in women to anorexia in children. Baby pangolins are used to make herbal wine, and pangolin meat is a high-priced delicacy in Vietnam and parts of China. 

Early in the Covid-19 pandemic, pangolins were found to carry the novel coronavirus, and a theory emerged that the disease may have been introduced to humans by way of pangolin meat. Although this theory has been largely dismissed—it seems that pangolins were infected by bats but likely did not spread the virus to humans—it led to pangolin populations being culled, driving their numbers even lower than before. 

Needless to say, you’re unlikely to come across a pangolin in the wild. And yet there is still a chance, because these shy nocturnal creatures do indeed live in the more remote parts of Hong Kong’s natural areas. “I’d love to come across one,” says wildlife photographer Robert Ferguson. One of his fellow wildlife enthusiasts set camera traps in the bush and eventually did manage to photograph a pangolin, but only after six months. “And of course when they’re found they’re killed, they’re sold, so they are extremely rare, unfortunately,” he says.

It wasn’t always this way. Pangolins are survivors from a time when Hong Kong’s animal population was far larger and more diverse than it is today. As zoologist Patricia Marshall explained in her pioneering 1968 book Wild Mammals of Hong Kong, Hong Kong was once covered in lush rainforest home to tigers, elephants, leopards and rhinos. When settlers arrived from the north during the early part of the Song Dynasty (960-1279), they established farms where they grew rice and kept pigs, cows and chickens. But the animals—particularly the elephants—kept destroying their crops. That, along with regular pirate attacks, left the settlers destitute.

At first, they tried to appease the elephants by building them a shrine, which was completed in the year 962 just north of the current Hong Kong-Shenzhen border. When that didn’t work, they burnt and razed the woods. “This had the desired effect on the animals,” wrote Marshall. “Elephants and rhinos without food quickly left and with them many of the smaller animals. Much of the top soil disappeared. Without trees to hold it in place the rain washed the soil into rivers and out to sea. Even today a thousand years later the soil, flora and fauna have not recovered from the drastic deforestation carried out by the early settlers.”

The animals that were able to survive in the new landscape were much smaller – including pangolins. Marshall described them as “the most interesting local mammal.” They belong to their own particular subset of animals, the Philodota, and they subsist on ants, termites and other insects, which they eat with the help of long, sticky tongues. Their scales are made of keratin, the same material as our hair and nails, and they have long, strong claws that can dig up anthills and sift through rotting tree trunks. “A voracious destroyer of termites and pests it does much good and no harm to man,” wrote Marshall. “The pangolin lives in a burrow, is nocturnal and is seldom seen, but it is fairly widespread in the colony.”

That was then. Today, pangolins are critically endangered and they face an imminent threat of extinction. That’s especially true for Chinese pangolin—Manis pentadactyla—which is the subspecies that lives in a region that spans all of southern China, Taiwan, and the northern parts of Vietnam, Laos, Myanmar, along with parts of Bhutan and Nepal. Seven other subspecies live in Africa, South Asia and Southeast Asia, and it is these other pangolins that now provide the bulk of meat and scales for sale in Vietnam and China.

It’s a criminal industry that often uses Hong Kong as a point of shipment. According to the Pangolin Reports, a global effort by journalists to document the pangolin trade, 27 new smuggling routes are created by wildlife traffickers each year. In one case last year, a shipping container en route from Nigeria to Vietnam was found to contain 8.2 tonnes of pangolin scales when it was inspected during a stopover in Hong Kong. This past May, two mainland Chinese men were caught at the Hong Kong airport with 100 kilograms of pangolin scales. They were convicted of trafficking and sentenced to 21 and 27 months in jail, but it’s easy to understand why they were willing to take such a risk: pangolin scales are typically bought for US$2 per kilogram in Africa and sold for US$760 per kilo in China.

Most pangolins are caught in the wild; as Marshall noted, they do not take well to captivity, as it is difficult to provide them with enough termites or ant larvae to satisfy their hunger. But a number of wildlife farmers in China have nonetheless attempted to raise pangolins in captivity in order to satisfy the demand for scales and meat. They were nearly all culled after the Covid-19 pandemic began. 

Still, the news for pangolins isn’t all bad. The pandemic has shed new light on their plight, and in the past few months, China has stepped up legal protections for pangolins and cracked down on their use in traditional medicine, removing them from the official directory of medical ingredients. 

That will hopefully stop the ongoing collapse of the wild Chinese pangolin population. For now, if you’re on a nighttime hike through a Hong Kong country park, count yourself extraordinarily lucky if you happen to spot one of these elusive creatures.

Photos of rescued Chinese native pangolins are provided by the Kadoorie Farm and Botanic Garden

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