Pangolins in the Dock

By, Dorcas Wangira, Kenya

The pangolin is the world’s most trafficked mammal. No one truly knows its conservation status in Kenya. When COVID-19 broke out in early 2020, some medical researchers linked coronavirus to horseshoe bats.  Other researchers suspected the malayan or javan pangolin to be the intermediate host of coronavirus before it jumped to human beings. But is the pangolin really guilty as charged? Pangolins In The Dock dissects the available research and makes a case for the survival of the already endangered mammal. As Dorcas Wangira reports, this should well be the moment to acquit the pangolin.

Marungu, Voi

In the open grasslands of the Tsavo Conservation area, Fanuel Mwazame, a wildlife scout at the Chalongo Conservancy peers into pangolin burrows. He is hoping to spot, at high noon, an elusive mammal that almost always comes out at night. Hours later, he resigns. It will have to wait till midnight. 

“With the pangolin, it’s almost as if you won’t find it when you look for it but when you are not searching, you spot it,” Mwazame says.

Tsavo means slaughter in the Akamba language. It is also the largest conservation area in Kenya and one of the places you are likely and lucky to see a pangolin. In Chamani village in Marungu bordering the Tsavo East National Park, far too few people have seen this mammal. In the open plains, semi-desert scrub, acacia woodlands and riverine forests, there are more charismatic animals that roam this land – exemplified by  the vast herds of famous elephants. Yet the irony is that the elusive pangolin is the most trafficked mammal in the world.

 Pangolin protections cut during the pandemic

Pangolin. Photo courtesy of African Wildlife Foundation

The pangolin remains the world’s most trafficked mammal despite an international ban on the trade of all pangolin species since January 2017. According to the United Nations Office On Drugs And Crime (UNODC), a single operation last April seized 25 tonnes of African pangolin scales, representing an estimated 50,000 dead pangolins at an estimated market value of USD $7 million. Between 2014 and 2018, the equivalent of 370,000 pangolins were seized globally. According to Dr. Claire Okell, the founder of the Pangolin Project with a background in veterinary science, more than  a million pangolins  have been poached in the wild. Pangolin scales are used in traditional Chinese medicine, and its meat is a delicacy in some parts of Asia.

Leslie Olonyi, an environmental and natural resources lawyer, observes: “The money goes to individual  people or whoever is selling the product. The network is engaging in illegal crimes. But the same routes are those being used to traffic ivory and probably drugs and illegal arms, a dangerous interconnected web of criminality.”

Photo courtesy of African Wildlife Foundation

Nigeria, Uganda and the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) act as transit countries and logistical hubs for illegal pangolin trafficking. At least 51 tonnes of pangolin scales were seized in Nigeria in 2019. In the last 5 years, its trade, sale, and consumption have significantly increased in Nigeria. UNODC’S notable seizures reveal significant seizures of pangolin scales from Nigeria and the DRC, with the main seizing countries being Vietnam, China, Singapore, Turkey and reported destinations being Vietnam and Malaysia.

Pangolins are mammals, although many people think they are not. They are the only mammals covered in a fine layer of scales, yet additionally have a scaleless underbelly and nose covered by skin and hair. Pangolin scales are made of keratin – the same protein that makes up our fingernails, hair and animals’ hooves. They eat ants and termite species and are known to be shy and nocturnal. 

Pangolin male looking for pomoja. Credit: The Pangolin Project

Bernard Agwanda, a taxidermist and research scientist at the National Museums of Kenya, adds: “Human beings miss them because they are active during the day and the pangolins come out at night. We rarely cross paths. If it sees a large animal,  it will freeze. If you touch it or it hears commotion, it becomes like a stone. If you see it at night, you will pass it.”

No one truly knows how many African pangolins are left in the wild. A pangolin is killed in the wild every 5 minutes. 

“We are losing [pangolins] at an unprecedented level,” Dr. Philip Muruthi adds. Imagine losing something that you don’t know. You don’t know what you lost; that is the situation with the pangolin. When a species becomes so dependent on conservation efforts, it is at very high risk of extinction.”

Kenya reported its first case of Covid-19 on March 13, Travel restrictions and border closures soon followed, precipitating a near collapse of the wildlife tourism industry, since up to 70 percent of these tourists are international visitors. By May, 90 percent of the tourism sector had shut down, according to the Ministry of Tourism and Wildlife.

Tourism contributes up to 10 percent of global GDP and around 8.5 percent of Kenya’s 2018 GDP. The number of international arrivals to Kenya in 2019 reached about 2.2 million, but due to the pandemic, the numbers dropped to about 400,000 in the first 10 months of 2020.

Due to funding shortfalls and Covid-19 restrictions, non-state partners had to scale down operations, including monitoring and surveillance of the Kenyan pangolin population and training and paying conservancy scouts. Plans to begin the Kenya pangolin census and conduct baseline surveys were also put on hold.

During the pandemic, there have been numerous sightings and rescues of pangolins captured by poachers in Kenya.

In September, three people were arrested and charged with being in possession of a live pangolin. The three Kenyans, all male, were arrested by the Kenya Wildlife Service (KWS) officers on Sept. 22 in Likoni area and charged the next day at the Chief Magistrates Court in Mombasa.

On Dec. 27, the Kenya Wildlife Service arrested 6 people in possession of pangolin scales. 

The six suspects were found with 5 boxes of pangolin scales worth KSh 157 million (USD $1.4 million) and weighing 157 kilograms. The vehicle loaded with the contraband belonged to a clearing and forwarding agent based at the Jomo Kenyatta International Airport. The six were charged before Kibera Senior Principal Magistrate Phillip Mutua and court prosecutor Allan Mugere, where they denied the charges. They were released on Ksh.5 million bond. 

This being a major seizure in Kenya shows that the illegal trade of pangolins is continuing undoubtedly, with Kenya cementing its place as a source market and transit point. 

According to the Environmental Investigation Agency’s Out of Africa Report, Kenya ranks position 7 among African countries implicated in ivory and pangolin scales trafficking. Nigeria ranks first, having seized 167,594 kilograms of pangolin scales from 2015 to 2019. Uganda ranked fourth, having seized 9,199 kilograms and Kenya seventh with 1,396 scales seized. 

While the amount of illegal ivory seized from Kenya declined by 45,261 kilograms, pangolin scale seizures declined by only 401 kilograms over the reviewed years, according to the Environmental Investigation Agency. In other East African countries, pangolin seizures significantly increased.

People, Pangolin and Pandemic

Some scientists believe that the global COVID-19  pandemic is nothing short of  nature’s revenge. According to Dr. Muruthi, we have learned that non-respect of nature in one country can spread to the rest of humanity. If indeed this virus has jumped from wildlife to humans, there is something that nature is saying.”

Did Covid-19 spread from a pangolin? It is human nature to look for a culprit- either human or animal – during epidemics like Ebola, MERS, SARS and the Marburg virus. With the emergence of COVID-19, the designated culprits were bats and pangolins. Kenyan scientists are currently  investigating whether bats and pangolins stand correctly accused.

It is premature to say COVID-19  got primed in pangolins before it came to human beings,” says  Agwanda, the taxidermist at the National Museums of Kenya.

Pangolins may well be in the scientists’ dock for a case for which they have no opportunity to defend themselves. That defence, ironically, lies with the same scientists and researchers. Dr. Okell says “there is no conclusive evidence that pangolins have led to COVID-19 and are the intermediate source of the virus, but it has shed a spotlight on pangolin poaching and trafficking.”

Pangolins: A shy, endangered creature

Pangolin pup riding on its mother’s back. Credit: The Pangolin Project

Like other mammal species, pangolins give birth to one young one at a time, rarely having twins. There is no precise information about their gestation period; however, their birth rate is very low. They breastfeed their young for the first 2-3 months of their life, keeping them in burrows. Pangolin pups ride on the backs of their mothers in order to move about. They move slowly, almost like chameleons, but are very strong. Pangolins can stay up to 5 months with their mothers, some a year long before they move off and establish their own territories. Females move into male territories, and once established there, the males mate with females.

Pangolins do not dig their own burrows but make use of abandoned aardvark, porcupine and warthog burrows. Pangolins also shelter in termite holes, caves, and in between rocks, shrubs or piles of debris. The unique ant-eaters have very long and sticky tongues, and when they sense danger or discomfort, they curl up into a ball as a defence mechanism. In doing this, they protect their head and underbelly, their outer layer of scales forming a tight armour to protect them from lions, hyenas and leopards. predation.

“ Pangolins do not do well in captivity and it has been completely unsuccessful to keep them within zoos or reproduce them in a captive environment, where information comes from when it comes to  wildlife species,” says Dr.Okell.

Globally, there are eight species of pangolin found in Asia and Africa, all of which are threatened with extinction. In Africa, there are four species: the black-bellied pangolin, the white-ellied tree pangolin, the giant ground pangolin –  all of which are threatened with extinction – and the Temminck’s ground pangolin, which is listed as vulnerable to extinction. The Giant Ground Pangolin is the largest in the world, weighing over 25 kilograms and living up to 20-25 years.

The African pangolin species are native to 15 African countries dispersed throughout southern, central, and eastern Africa. The Temminck’s ground pangolin is the only species found in southern and eastern Africa. Kenya is home to three species of pangolins; ground pangolins are found in open bushland, tree pangolins are found in Kakamega and Loita Hills,  and the giant pangolin is found in the Lake Victoria Region.

“We have not had a record in around 40 years. We are not certain if it is still there or stagnated. We don’t even know with good precision how many pangolins we have. Even before the giant pangolin was known in Western Kenya, it was there in DRC and north Tanzania,”Agwanda notes.

The white-ellied tree pangolin is the only tree species found in Kenya, where they are limited to the Kakamega forest. They are predominantly found across western and central Africa across the equatorial rainforest environments. The ground species in Kenya are the most widely distributed pangolins; they are found in rich savannah vegetation, open bushlands, arid areas, slopes, hillsides and woodlands.  Their distribution extends across the South Rift, Narok County, Taita Taveta, Mwingi, Kerio Valley, South Turkana and adjoining areas, in the West of Kenya and into the counties of West Pokot. The Maasai Mara reserve is a pangolin habitat as well as the Kakamega Forest, which is both a community reserve and a government protected area.

Entoboi – “a wonder”

The  name pangolin comes from the old Malaysian word penggulig’‘ meaning the one that rolls up. There is no general word for the pangolin in Kenya; different communities have their own local names. In Swahili, it is known as kakakuona. In Pokot: amikima and in Maasai: entoboi. In Maasai, this loosely translates to “a wonder”. 

When the Pangolin Project spoke to Maasai elders, they recounted  a story about the pangolins being a harbinger of good luck. You were lucky if you saw it. You were blessed if you saw it, and there was a specific ritual to be performed after sighting one. The community would recover the leaves and branches around the pangolin they had seen and good luck would follow.

Dr. Muruthi notes, “The last time I saw a pangolin was in Laikipia 5 years ago at night. The first time it was a small boy in the slopes of the Aberdares. As a small boy, you are curious. Later when  I started reading about them, as the most trafficked animal, it reflected to me as the thing we were playing with when we were young. Recently, I have come to the awareness that pangolins are even eaten and collected for commercial use.”

There is folklore in many African communities, generally of love and witchcraft. It is believed that when mixed with bark from certain trees, the scales of pangolins neutralize witchcraft and evil spirit. Some tribes believe that if sighted, a drought will occur and if buried near a man’s door, they are said to give an interested woman power over him. Some believe that the smoke from their scales improves cattle health and keeps lions away.

“In West Africa, it is used as bushmeat,” Agwanda says. “It is common and eaten by locals. Zimbabweans have the culture of a king coming to  visit. In their traditional system, the king is fed the pangolin. African use is sustainable. How many times would you host a king?”

The demand in Asia, however, is extremely high. The Asian Pangolin Species:  The  Phillipine (Palawan) Pangolin, Malayan (Sunda) Pangolin, Indian (Thick-tailed)  Pangolin and the Chinese Pangolin are critically endangered with extinction .

In Asia, the reason that live pangolins and derivatives such as scales are  in high demand is because of perceived medicinal and love potion value as well as the prestige of consuming  its  meat and soup.

Pangolin scales are used for Chinese traditional medicine, particularly for acupuncture and blood disorders.  Its meat, seen as a delicacy to savor, is another source of demand and has driven the increase of black market trade. Due to this high demand, the consumption of pangolins in Asia increased too rapidly and the Asian population plummeted. Consequently, since around 2000, African species have become overexploited with the trafficking moving from Asia to Africa.

Photo courtesy of African Wildlife Foundation

According to National Geographic, pangolin scales actually have no proven medical value. Dr. Philip Muruthi, vice president of species at the Africa Wildlife Foundation, disputes the medical benefits of pangolin scales. 

“I don’t see why we are reading  about 14 tonnes of pangolin scales being apprehended in Singapore in 2019 – an equivalent of 72,000 pangolins. Pangolin scales have keratin and if you want to use their scales, why don’t you harvest your hair and nails? There is no medicinal value in pangolin scales.”

Pangolins are at the edge of existence. Even though they face habitat loss in a developed and developing world, the poaching and illegal wildlife trafficking is making them functionally extinct.

Dr. Okell quips; “There is a great threat to the existence of the species as a whole, They are severely threatened and this is something of immense concern to us. Internationally, all species were upgraded to CITES Appendix 1. They were given the highest level of protection that meant it was no longer possible and it was illegal to trade and traffic them. We believe they are the most endangered and most vulnerable species in Kenya.”

Fact-checking the blame on pangolins for Covid-19 

amboseli landscape
Amboseli landscape, Kenya
 December 2019: Wuhan, China

The first case of Covid-19 was detected in December 2019. The wet market in Wuhan, China called the Huanan Seafood Wholesale Market is believed to be the source of the virus. Wet markets are typically large collections of open-air stalls selling fresh seafood, meat, fruits, and vegetables. Some wet markets sell and slaughter live animals on site.

According To The United Nations Environment Programme,  70 percent of all emerging infectious diseases are zoonotic, emerging from the transfer of animals to humans.

Dr. Agwanda lends to the global debate; “SARS-CoV-2 is a big problem. Kenya is experiencing the second wave of infection. Because of the emotion and economic turmoil [that] the pandemic has caused, quick conclusions are made. Some are necessary. Some are unnecessary.”

SARS-CoV-2 (Covid-19) was first suspected to have originated from bats. It was found to be closely related to the sarbecoviruses (Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome Related Betacoronavirus) from Chinese horseshoe bats. There is no evidence of direct transmission of sarbecoviruses from bats to humans to date. The natural reservoir for betacoronaviruses, the type of coronavirus that includes the SARS viruses, are bats and rodents. The only direct infections to humans have been linked to laboratory accidents  during the SARS epidemic.

“The virus is very harmless in bats. It needs another animal to get the capability to kill humans. Viruses just don’t change on their own.  When there is a recombination of the virus, a hybrid or potent, then the virus can kill. 

“The SARS-CoV-1 virus that gave us the opportunity to name SARS-CoV-2 was found in a civet cat: bigger than a cat, smaller than the domestic dog. In China, they eat it. They saw the virus came from bats before it got to the human being,” Agwanda submits.

The coronavirus is an enormous family of viruses. Pangolins have reportedly fallen sick as a result of coronavirus infection. This means that they are not a natural reservoir of the disease, as they too have been infected. However, the possibility remains that the pangolin is facilitating transmission to humans. 

Dr. Philip Muruthi also weighs in. “One theory is that the human body is not acclimatized to the virus. It does not know how to deal with it,” he says. “But the pangolin body or the bat body might be acclimatized to it. You don’t see pangolins  falling off the trees or the ground because they have Covid or a virus related to Covid, but people are falling and dying.”

A pangolin found in Mwingi region, eastern Kenya. Photo courtesy of Bernard Agwanda

7th February 2020:  Two researchers  in the South China Agricultural University in Guangzhou reported that they had identified the pangolin as the potential source of  the novel coronavirus, on the basis of  a genetic comparison of coronaviruses taken from the animals and humans infected in the outbreak. The sequences were identical. In the same month of February, Chinese legislators passed a resolution banning the sale and consumption of wild animals including bats, pangolins, exotic birds, and arctic foxes.

According to Agwanda, the Covid-19 virus is 96% similar to the one found in pangolin.  

 ““It is yet to be concluded whether the pangolins are those found in the Chinese wet markets are Chinese pangolins or African pangolins. You have to make sure that you do not just check just one single pangolin; you need to check many pangolins and compare the sequences, the genetic material  and see if they have co-evolution.”

A paper published in the Lancet, July 2020, traced the origins of SARS-CoV-2. The researchers concluded that it came from a virus with relatively generalist properties circulating in horseshoe bats. 

According to David Robertson, Head of Bioinformatics at the Medical Research Council – University of Glasgow Centre For Virus Research in Scotland, SARS-CoV-2 is  like nothing the world has  seen before. it really is highly unlikely that someone created it; it is not put together from pieces we know about.”

The Malayan or the Javan pangolin was the first suspect, but why do they stand accused? According to the  U.S. National Library Of Medicine within the National Institutes Of Health, it is because of the presence of the ACE2 receptor sequence, a receptor protein for SARS-CoV-2, in animals smuggled from the Indo-Malayan region and sold in China’s wet markets. In addition to bats and pangolins, SARS-CoV-2 can also bind to ACE2 receptors in other animals such as ferrets, cats, monkeys, dogs, Chinese hamsters, buffalos, sheep, swine and even pigeons.

However,  Dr. Okell still remarks that “[while there is no conclusive  evidence that the COVID-19 pandemic  came to people through the pangolin, it has really shown that there is a risk to the consumption of wildlife products through zoonotic diseases.”

In Kenya, scientists are also working to prove and disprove this theory.

Agwanda elaborates; “We screen them the way we screen human beings. We swab them. That is what we are doing here in Kenya. We hope that our colleagues in South Africa are doing the same. This is to bring this a conclusion. It is possible because there has been a huge uptake of African pangolins into Asia and the virus living with pangolins and human beings. If it gets to an Asian environment, the host is already primed.”

Against this backdrop, a study published in October 2020 by the U.S National Library Of Medicine National Institutes Of Health further provides evidence that the pangolin is not the intermediate animal at the origin of the human pandemic. Available data does not fit with the spillover model currently proposed for zoonotic emergence; thus, it is unlikely to account for the COVID-19 outbreak.

In an article published by The Lancet, Dr. Robertson further stated The virus would not need to evolve in the pangolin; it would just need to be brought into contact with humans. It is still too soon to rule out direct bat–human transmission.”

So what is the verdict? Dr. Ahmed Ogwell, the Deputy Director at The African Centres For Disease Control (CDC), asserts; “All evidence points to other animals rather than the pangolin being responsible for COVID-19. The pangolin is innocent.”

The danger is that even if science acquits the pangolin and proves that it is not responsible for the Covid-19 pandemic, the damage has already been done. Blaming wildlife for zoonotic diseases may result in culling, mass slaughter and loss of biodiversity.

Agwanda emphasises this. 

“The report that the pangolin has this virus could have a negative impact on it. People who would see it and ignore it will now just want to vandalize and persecute it,” he says. “If you think an animal is the source, you need to stop people. To another extent, we hope that it will discourage Asians from exporting animals into their markets.”

Dr. Okell advises what one should do at the sighting of a pangolin.

“If you see a pangolin – you may see it walking, curled like a ball or walking on the ground – please don’t pick it up. Please keep your distance; they are sensitive to humans. There is nothing to be afraid from pangolin. They don’t bite. They won’t run to you. There is no harm from them.”

Photo courtesy of African Wildlife Foundation

However, if indeed the virus jumped from wild animals to human beings, then humanity must reconsider the way we interact with nature. When animals from around the world are crammed into wet markets in close proximity with one another and with other humans, the risk of transmission of viruses and other pathogens increases greatly.

Dr. Muruthi posits further “It’s not just about Covid-19 but other diseases. Is the meat we eat inspected? Is it hygienic? The best case scenario would be to stop! We shouldn’t be eating pangolins.”

The future for pangolins

Pangolins may not be as charismatic as other animals, but this does not mean that they are any less important. They play an important role in the ecosystem, controlling ant and termite populations. They are also part of Kenya’s heritage and biodiversity. 2020 was the super year for biodiversity and nature. Kenya is still a nature-based economy, and it is the communities who remain the custodians for pangolins in the country.

Agwanda foreshadows a bleak future for pangolins if their trafficking continues unabated.

“Pangolins don’t have a future in 50 years if we don’t slow and stop the mass harvesting. The example here is not alarmist. The Chinese population nosedived. The Asian population nosedived. We think in the next 4-5 decades, Africa will not have pangolins, with the illegal trade and with the  consumption if the appetite for pangolin in Asia does not give them room to survive.”

This story was supported by InfoNile in partnership with Code for Africa with funding from Internews Earth Journalism Network. Editing by Madison Erdall and Annika McGinnis.

It was first aired on Citizen TV, Kenya on Sunday, 20th December 2020

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