Much like its Covid-19 response, Taiwan's conservation of pangolins is held up as a global success story. These conservation efforts have taken on added importance as the scaly anteater look-alike made headlines alongside bats earlier this year as carriers of coronaviruses.

Unsubstantiated research in China claimed that pangolins could have passed the Covid-19 infection to humans. However, there is still no scientific consensus that the virus had spread from pangolins.

Unlike other mammals, pangolins have a “genetic defect” that protects them against coronaviruses, according to recent findings published by the Medical University of Vienna. Their survival may help researchers to find new treatment strategies for Covid-19 in humans.

Chao Jung-tai, former deputy director of the Taiwan Forestry Research Institute (TFRI), said that while further research may bring to light a treatment for Covid-19, it should not mean that more pangolins should be sacrificed for human drug development.

Pangolins are the most trafficked mammals in the world. In China, pangolin scales are believed to have healing properties, even for impotence and cancer. The recent findings on the endangered species have called more attention to pangolin conservation.

Taiwan is likely the last conservation ground for pangolins, which are listed as critically endangered on the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s Red List.

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小穿山甲遭犬攻擊 斷尾缺趾傷勢重

Photo Credit: CNA

A baby pangolin is in the care of Wild Animal First Aid Station in Miaoli, Taiwan after being severely injured by wild dogs, May, 2020.

“Unless there are special approved circumstances, they must not be captured or used,” Chao told The News Lens via email. “We are doing our best to eliminate threats to pangolins (e.g. habitat loss and fragmentation), reduce their risk of extinction, and restore their populations.”

In February, China banned wildlife trade and consumption to curb the spread of disease. But the ban does not include trade for fur, medicine, or research, creating potential loopholes for exploitation. Investigators discovered that pangolin scales are still on the ingredient lists of medicine catalogs in China’s 2020 pharmacopoeia.

It is difficult to gauge from Taiwan the effect of Covid-19 on the illegal trafficking of pangolins. Despite wildlife regulations, Taiwan is occasionally used as a channel to smuggle pangolin products into China. In early 2018, a shipment of 4,000 descaled pangolins from Malaysia was seized in the southern port city of Kaohsiung.

“The impact [of the ban] on the domestic Chinese market is worth observing,” said Sun Ching-min, a pangolin researcher at the National Pingtung University of Science and Technology (NPUST). “If long-term law enforcement and sustainability can be maintained, this will create a definite inhibitory effect on the black market demand for pangolins.”

Sun said the Covid-19 outbreak has had a limited impact on pangolin trafficking, because the poaching activities are less sensitive to the effects of the pandemic than the Chinese market demand.

“I hope that research into pangolin immunity will not only lead to investment into pathology and clinical trials, but also more attention to the illegal trade faced by pangolins, and their ecological conservation,” Sun said.

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Photo Credit: Reuters / TPG Images

Custom officials hold up seized pangolin scales at Kuala Lumpur airport customs complex in Sepang, May 8, 2017.

Conservationists are worried that as many East Asian countries reopen their economies, the lucrative market for pangolin products will continue. Despite public concerns about zoonotic spillover, there is little to suggest that the fears alone will quell demand without strict legal regulations.

News that pangolins have been found to be one of the only mammals to hold immunity against the virus could prove problematic for conservation efforts.

“If science confirms that the pangolin is key for a treatment of Covid-19, that gives even more reason to guarantee the survival of pangolins and other wild animals,” said Kurtis Pei, director of NPUST’s Wildlife Conservation Institute. “If pangolins had become extinct before Covid-19, we would have lost the opportunity to treat newly emerging diseases.”

Taiwan intends to continue leading the fight against the global Covid-19 pandemic as well as against the illegal trade of pangolins, Pei added.

“Although we haven't observed any real Covid-related effects on pangolins in Taiwan, we must continue our efforts to get populations to recover,” Pei said. “We've already done well in the last 20 years, but we must do more.”

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TNL Editor: Daphne K. Lee, Nicholas Haggerty (@thenewslensintl)

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