Fancy a pangolin infected with coronavirus? Apparently, many people do

30 12 2021

The logic of money contradicts the logic of species conservation and human health. As illegal trade has driven pangolins to near extinction, their hunting and market value has kept increasing ― even when we have known that they act as coronavirus reservoirs in the middle of the Covid-19 pandemic.

Sunda pangolin (Manis javanica) in a monsoon forest (Sumba Island, Indonesia). With adult weights up to 10 kg and body lengths around half a metre, these animals are mostly solitary and nocturnal, feed on ants and termites, and love tree climbing using bark hollows to shelter and give birth to singletons. The species occurs across mainland and islands of South East Asia, and became ‘Endangered’ in 2008 and ‘Critically Endangered’ in 2014, following a 80% decline in the last 20 years due to hunting and poaching. It has been the most heavily trafficked Asian species, and the IUCN’s assessment states: “… the incentives for harvesting and illegally trading in the species are universally high based on the high financial value of pangolin parts and derivatives”. Captive breeding is unlikely to deter wild collection because (among other reasons) farming costs are high (more so on a large scale) and, even if the species could be traded legally, wild versus farmed pangolin products and individuals are difficult to distinguish (23). Photo courtesy of Michael Pitts

Urbanites are attracted to exotic species, materials, and places. Our purchasing power seems to give us the right to buy any ‘object’ that we can pay for, no matter how exotic the object might be. In such a capitalist rationale, it is no surprise that > 150 thousand illegal cargos with wild animals and plants have been confiscated in 149 countries over the last two decades, moving some 6000 species from one place of the planet to another (1).

Social networks show people interacting with all kinds of fauna, creating the illusion that any animal can become a pet (2). And there’s a multi-$billion market of wildlife for a diverse array of uses including collecting, food, ornamentation, leisure, clothing and medicine (3-5). The paradox is that the rarer a species is, the higher its market value runs and the more lucrative selling it turns out to be, leading to more exploitation and rocketing extinction risk (6).

The Covid-19 pandemic adds one layer of complexity to this problem. One could expect that the possibility a species might transmit a given disease to humans would surely reduce the demand for its trafficking, by the premise that transporting potentially infected animals to populated cities could multiply the chances of microbes jumping to humans, what is known as a ‘zoonosis‘ (7). But … market laws, and those who make a living from the wildlife trade, hardly care.

More covid, more trade

Pangolins illustrate the problem all too well. These insect-eating mammals are remarkable for their bodies fully covered by scales made of keratin (8), the same protein that hardens human finger nails. Both bats and pangolins are natural reservoirs of coronaviruses (9), and the human SARS-CoV-2 resembles an evolved form of coronavirus strains present in those mammals (10). Although we still debate the animal species from which we caught our coronavirus (11-13), a hypothetical pangolin host has been trumpeted in the media and on social networks. 

Knowing the pangolin-coronavirus connection, Vikram Aditya and collaborators browsed the internet for cases of illegal pangolin trade in India from 2018 to 2020 (14). They found a total of 111 seizures, of which 65% were dead or living animals and the remainder consisted of scales. Due to the Covid-19 pandemic, the Indian population was locked down between March and May 2020, and followed gradual relaxation of social distancing over the rest of the year. However, from March to August annually, there were 10 to 20 more pangolin seizures in 2020 than in 2018 or 2019. So, illegal trade of pangolins increased the year of the SARS-CoV-2 irruption according to internet data.

Pangolin trade and CITES. Green bars show number of seizures in India from 2018 to 2020 (Mar-Aug/year) according to internet data (14), with the peak of illegal trade in 2020 (the first year of the Covid-19 pandemic). Below that are global volume (number of dead or living individuals) of legal trade of Asian species until 2000, and illegal trade of African and Asian species between 2001 and 2019 (16). The Sunda pangolin (Manis javanica), a tentative host of the SARS-CoV-2 (13), predominated during the period of legal trade of Asian species. Then, African species have led since CITES banned the trade of Asian species in 2000 and all species in 2016. Ever since, illegal trade has been increasing. The four Asian species are now endangered, and, of the African species, two are vulnerable and the other two are already endangered (†). Pangolin trade is bound to decline when all species become rare in the wild and there are virtually no animals to hunt – see videos by National Geographic here and here, and by Animalogic

The hypothetical sequence of events might have been as follows. Unemployment and closure of services in Indian cities due to the pandemic caused an exodus of people to the countryside (15). More people in rural areas meant more use of natural resources under weak to null control, because governments were allocating resources to manage the pandemic at the expense of other social needs (16). And the national and international networks of pangolin trade (17, 18) took advantage of the situation as a money-making opportunity (14).

When regulation leads to non-regulation

The Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) can be held (unwillingly) responsible for the decline of the wild populations of the 8 extant species of pangolins. Every change in trade regulation by CITES has modified trade patterns.

These animals were initially legally traded under CITES Appendix II since 1977. In response to unsustainable hunting and trading piling up, CITES imposed a zero quota on all Asian species in 2000, which cascaded into two market shifts:

(i) the predominant product of trade changed from skins to scales and individuals, and

(ii) trafficking of African species (with final destinations in Asia) rocketed.

In 2016 (see IUCN news and CITES report), CITES reacted by placing all eight species in its Appendix I that bans all types of trade. However, the new status seems to have stimulated illegal trade further (17). In 2019 alone, the volume of seizures amounted to ~ 200,000 pangolins (20 tonnes in weight). Since CITES started regulating the pangolin market, the volume of illegal trade (which is always difficult to quantify) has vastly exceeded the volume of legal trade (17).

Geographical distribution of pangolins (8 extant species*) according to the IUCN Pangolin Specialist Group. Below, a seizure of 288 kg of pangolin scales confiscated at Kuala Lumpur Airport (Malaysia) in 2017, in its transit from Ghana to Asia. The market value of this cargo ranges from 100 a 800 US$/kg. On the right, two medicinal drugs made of pangolin scales and prescribed in China (supposedly) to counteract poisoning. The use of these and similar drugs is promoted by traditional doctors (21), who often ignore their illegality (22). Eating pangolin food provides social status, pangolin drugs are widely used to treat numerous pathologies like cancer, skin diseases, rheumatism, menstrual problems, to stimulate lactation and blood circulation, and even to flavour rice wine (18). Courtesy of Claire Buchan / IUCN Pangolin Specialist Group (poster), and Elisabeth John and TRAFFIC (photos)

China and Vietnam are the main consumers of pangolin products, which are deeply rooted in cultural beliefs and traditions (listen here* and read and watch here). Managing illegal trade by Western countries, with the sole goal of saving species and protecting nature, is often interpreted as a green form of neocolonialism (19) and fails to modify consumer habits (20). The challenge to solve is that control measures will remain useless by themselves if neglecting the motivations and cultural context of the demand.

Salvador Herrando-Pérez

A Spanish version of this blog has been published by the journal Quercus in December 2021.

[Asia] Sunda pangolin Manis javanica (Critically Endangered), Philippine pangolin Manis culionensis (Critically Endangered), Indian pangolin Manis crassicaudata (Endangered), Chinese pangolin Manis pentadactyla (Critically Endangered); [Africa] Temminck’s pangolin Smutsia temminckii (Vulnerable), giant ground pangolin Smutsia gigantea (Endangered), white-bellied pangolin Phataginus tricuspis (Endangered), black-bellied pangolin Phataginus tetradactyla (Vulnerable)

*NOTE: Sustainable Asia has produced a four-chapter series on pangolins including:

  1. Why are pangolins so prized in China (listen)
  2. Pangolins, poverty and porous borders (listen)
  3. Demand for pangolins in Southeast Asia (listen)
  4. Will coronavirus change the pangolins’ fate? (listen)


  1. United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (2020) World Wildlife Crime Report. Traficking in protected species
  2. McMillan SE et al. (2021). Exotic animal cafes are increasingly home to threatened biodiversityConserv Lett 14:e12760
  3. Rizzolo JB (2021). Effects of legalization and wildlife farming on conservationGlobal Ecol Conserv 25:e01390
  4. Baker SE et al. (2013). Rough trade: animal welfare in the global wildlife tradeBioScience 63:928-938
  5. Rosen GE & Smith KF (2010). Summarizing the evidence on the international trade in illegal wildlifeEcoHealth 7:24-32
  6. Courchamp F et al. (2006). Rarity value and species extinction: the anthropogenic Allee effectPLoS Biol 4:e415
  7. Swift L et al. (2007). Wildlife trade and the emergence of infectious diseasesEcoHealth 4:25-30
  8. Gaubert P et al. (2018). The complete phylogeny of pangolins: scaling up resources for the molecular tracing of the most trafficked mammals on EarthJ Hered 109:347-359
  9. Zhang T, Wu Q & Zhang Z (2020). Probable pangolin origin of SARS-CoV-2 associated with the COVID-19 outbreakCurr Biol 30:1346-1351
  10. Touati R et al. (2020). Comparative genomic signature representations of the emerging COVID-19 coronavirus and other coronaviruses: high identity and possible recombination between bat and pangolin coronavirusesGenomics 112:4189-4202
  11. Frutos R et al. (2020). COVID-19: time to exonerate the pangolin from the transmission of SARS-CoV-2 to humansInfect Gen Evol 84:104493
  12. Andersen KG et al. (2020). The proximal origin of SARS-CoV-2Nat Med 26:450-452
  13. Lam TT-Y et al. (2020). Identifying SARS-CoV-2-related coronaviruses in Malayan pangolinsNature 583:282-285
  14. Aditya V et al. (2021). Scale of the issue: mapping the impact of the COVID-19 lockdown on pangolin trade across IndiaBiol Conserv 257:109136
  15. Mukhra R, Krishan K & Kanchan T (2020). COVID-19 sets off mass migration in IndiaArch Med Res 51:736-738
  16. Evans KL et al. (2020). Conservation in the maelstrom of Covid-19 – a call to action to solve the challenges, exploit opportunities and prepare for the next pandemicAnim Conserv 23:235-238
  17. Challender DWS et al. (2019). International trade and trafficking in pangolins, 1900-2019Pangolins: Science, Society and Conservation:259-276
  18. Heinrich S et al. (2016). Where did all the pangolins go? International CITES trade in pangolin speciesGlobal Ecol Conserv 8:241-253
  19. Burgess G et al., in Pangolins: Science, Society and Conservation, DWS Challender, HC Nash & C Waterman, Eds. (Academic Press, 2020), pp. 349-366
  20. Veríssimo D & Wan AKY (2019). Characterizing efforts to reduce consumer demand for wildlife productsConserv Biol 33:623-633
  21. Sexton R, Nguyen T & Roberts DL (2021). The use and prescription of pangolin in traditional Vietnamese medicineTrop Conserv Sci 14:1940082920985755
  22. Wang Y, Turvey ST & Leader-Williams N (2020). Knowledge and attitudes about the use of pangolin scale products in Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) within ChinaPeople Nat 2:903-912
  23. Challender DWS et al. (2019). Evaluating the feasibility of pangolin farming and its potential conservation impactGlobal Ecol Conserv 20:e00714



Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: