Scientists have identified pangolins as the likely source of the coronavirus infection that has brought the world to its knees. In this timely exposé, Richard Peirce unpacks the horrors and dangers of the trade in the enigmatic, little-known mammal. He explains the links between wildlife and Covid-19, details China’s response to the pandemic, and tells the story of a particular pangolin poached in Zimbabwe and brought to South Africa to be traded.
Read the excerpt.
My investigation started in Hanoi in a rather obvious street in the tourist area called Lãn Ȏng Street, which is lined on both sides by shops selling traditional medicines and supplements for every type of ailment. I was working with colleagues Anton and Jasmine and an interpreter. We methodically made our way along both sides of the street. I had two main focuses: the first was to find tiger products, which could have originated from South Africa’s lion bone supply, and the second was to check the availability of pangolin scales, meat and live animals.
Most of the shops in Lãn Ȏng Street were packed with legal products, and ‘tiger balm’ was obvious everywhere. There are two types of tiger balm: the legal ointment (a topical medication used to alleviate pain) and the illegal one, variously known as tiger balm, tiger cake and tiger glue. I was looking for the second type, which is derived from actual tiger body parts, including tiger bones.
Due to ever-increasing demand, and the fact that lion and tiger skeletons are almost impossible to tell apart, in recent years lion bones have been used to prepare tiger products, and in particular tiger cake and tiger wine. This market underpins South Africa’s supply of lion bones to Southeast Asia. The bones are sourced from South Africa’s captive lion breeding industry, and this is a highly profitable trade. In 2016, the CITES conference (COP17) was held in Johannesburg, and one outcome of it was that South Africa was given a special dispensation to export an annual quota of lion skeletons sourced from its captive breeding industry. The number of skeletons agreed for the first year’s quota was 800.
A 15–18-kilogram lion or tiger skeleton is initially sold for about $1,500–$1,800. At an average of $1,650, the 800 carcasses in South Africa’s 2017 quota were collectively worth $1,320,000 before processing. When boiled, a skeleton delivers about 60 portions (bars) of tiger or lion ‘cake’. Of course, there are middlemen between the first seller and the final consumer; the processor, wholesaler and retailer all have profit margins and, in many cases, smugglers and others will have taken their cuts too. Each bar sells for $1,000, so each skeleton is worth $60,000 by the time it has been processed and sold to the end consumer as ‘tiger cake’. This means the 800 skeletons were ultimately worth a staggering $48,000,000! Vietnam and China are the main consumer markets; other countries like Cambodia and Thailand are smaller consumers, and the size of the market in each country is heavily influenced by the size of its local Chinese and Vietnamese populations. In Vietnam, all tiger (lion) products are popular, but in China it is mostly tiger wine (a highly alcoholic beverage) that is in demand.
Laos is a major entry port of illegal wild animal products for the entire region. According to the CITES trade database, Laos has a dominant position in the bone trade. Between 2009 and 2015 Laos bought over 2,000 complete skeletons from South Africa, and this figure excludes 2,300 bones and 40 skulls bought separately in the same period and sold as ‘incomplete skeletons’.
We worked the street, and in every shop asked for tiger cake and pangolin. We were mostly met with negatives, head shaking, blank stares and sometimes were told these things could not be sold because they are illegal. However, in less than three hours we got lucky and were told we could buy 100 grams of tiger cake for $1,000. We were told that it wasn’t in the shop, but if we wanted it we could collect it the next day. Pangolin scales could also be supplied if required.
We pretended interest in the tiger cake and Anton and I went back the next night. We were expecting a covert drug-dealing type of situation, and were worried that things might get difficult and dangerous when we made our excuses not to buy. Jasmine and our interpreter/guide were not with us, but were serving as backup if needed. We agreed on cell phone messages and various actions they could take if we signalled we were in trouble.
In the end our worries proved to be unfounded and our precautions unnecessary. The shop had an open front and the counter was almost on the street. As soon as we arrived a bar of chocolate-like substance was produced and placed on the counter for our inspection. I surreptitiously picked it up and examined it while using my body to shield it from being seen by anyone in the street. I then handed it back under the counter. The man I handed it to once again placed it in plain view on the counter!
We were allegedly buying the tiger cake for a friend in Hong Kong, and told the seller that, now that we had seen it, we would report to our friend and get back to him. I also again mentioned that I would let them know if we needed pangolin scales. We then left and headed for a bar – to discuss and analyse our experience while the details were still fresh in our minds. We had both been struck by the relaxed and open attitude that the seller had when dealing in an illegal product. That the product was illegal was widely acknowledged, but this didn’t lead to any particular caution when trading in it. With no special introductions and within only a few hours of starting open enquiries in normal shops, I had been shown tiger cake and offered pangolin scales.
In addition to our interpreter, we had a driver, who had somehow realised that we were shopping for ‘under-the-counter’ substances. He knew of a traditional medicine dealer in Hoa Binh who could provide tiger cake. With the driver and interpreter, we set off the next day for Hoa Binh, which is some three hours from Hanoi. On arrival at the dealer’s house we were greeted by a charming elderly couple who gave us tea and refreshments, and then a briefcase was produced which was full of bars of tiger cake. There was clearly a standard price because once again 100 grams would cost $1,000. This was proving depressingly and ludicrously easy. We had no special ‘ins’, were only on our third day, and were having no trouble sourcing pangolin and tiger products, both of which are CITES Appendix I listed animals. This illegal dealing in wildlife products was going on right under the noses of the authorities.
Our next stop was Vientiane, the capital of Laos where, if anything, our quest became more bizarre and even easier. We visited the San Jiang market near the airport, and almost immediately found ourselves in a situation bordering on ludicrous. Surrounding the San Jiang hotel and other hotels were shops, and in window displays and under glass-topped counters, totally open to view, were pangolin scales, pangolin wine, tiger (or possibly lion) wine, tiger bone carvings, tiger teeth and claw jewellery, ivory, rhino horn, and even a tiger whip, which looked like a bloody skinned tiger tail. The shop assistants were not remotely embarrassed or shy about discussing any of the products, none of which, according to international law, should have been on sale. If we could see pangolin scales, tiger wine and other illegal products openly on sale in shops, so could the police – yet where were they?
Most of the shop assistants appeared to be Chinese. So technically, just like us, they were foreign guests in another country. Foreign guests they may have been, but their couldn’t-care-less, almost arrogant demeanour strongly indicated that they knew they had nothing to fear from the law of the country in which they were guests.
After San Jiang our guide took us to the Packchum and Donmachey live animal markets. He had told us that the legal animals were on open display, while the illegal ones were hidden under the tables. The range of animal species available for sale was quite astonishing: toads, frogs, dogs, cats, piglets, pigeons, snakes, various fish, rabbits, scorpions, rats, mice, chickens, a huge variety of small birds, various small mammals, bats, bugs and cockroaches, shellfish, a large bear, monkeys and almost anything else one could imagine.
Almost as soon as Anton, Jasmine, our guide and I started walking along the rows of tables and among the cages the atmosphere became charged with suspicion. Whether they were suspicious of westerners in general, worried that we might be a documentary film crew, or connected to the police, I don’t know. The atmosphere was anything but relaxed, and clearly there would have been no point in asking for any of the illegal exotic species that we suspected were hidden in crates under the tables.
Although we were not able to witness the same brazen selling of illegal products that we had seen in San Jiang, these ‘wet’ markets were horrifying examples of the culture prevalent in the Far East, in which literally anything and everything from the animal world, alive or dead, both wild and domestic, is eaten. In Zimbabwe, poverty had driven Joseph to poach a pangolin. In the Far East, too, poverty is certainly a major driver behind what is eaten: when you are starving you will eat anything. The ‘eat-anything’ end of the spectrum might apply to what was on sale on the tables in the markets. It would not apply to the expensive, exotic luxury items probably hidden under the tables, but so openly on sale in the shops in San Jiang.
After Vientiane we returned to Vietnam, where our final stop was Ho Chi Minh City, formerly known as Saigon. We had only two full days in the city so had to be careful with our time. It may be that we just struck it lucky, but in Ho Chi Minh City the trading of illegal wildlife was even easier to find than it had been in Hanoi or Vientiane.
In her book Poached, Nuwer lists various restaurants in Ho Chi Minh City that serve ‘exotics’ such as pangolins. We made a random selection and went to a restaurant called Huong Rung. I asked if they had anything special on the menu, like wild meat. We had walked in off the street, once again had no special introduction, and could easily have been members of law enforcement. With no suspicion, and without batting an eyelid, the head waiter said that he had civet cat immediately available. This was a staggering response for various reasons, but chief among them was that civet cats are often cited as having been one of the probable vectors, or disease-carrying interfaces, for the Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) virus on its way to humans.
SARS was a deadly disease outbreak that began in Guangdong in China in 2002. It was a strain of coronavirus usually found in bats and small animals. The outbreak took over a year to bring under complete control, and was mostly restricted to China and other Southeast Asian countries, although there was a significant outbreak in Toronto in Canada. By the time the outbreak had petered out, there had been over 8,000 cases reported, and nearly 800 deaths. This 10% death rate ranked SARS high on the list of deadly diseases, and in response to the outbreak, the Chinese government temporarily suspended trade in wildlife products, including civet cats. This ban was later relaxed and 17 years later another deadly coronavirus, called Covid-19, would emerge, with wild animals once again almost certainly being the source of the virus. And here I was, standing in a restaurant in Vietnam’s second city, being offered the chief SARS vector suspect for lunch! Civet cats are not considered an endangered species, but they can certainly be considered a species that was highly likely to have caused hundreds of deaths, endangered thousands more human lives, and led to severe economic damage.
Being offered civet cat for lunch was only the start. I told the waiter, who had an air of authority about him and might have been the owner, that I had eaten civet cat and was hoping for something different. I asked him if he could make pangolin available. In the blink of an eye he said yes, I could have pangolin meat at 7,000,000 Dong per kilogram. I calculated this in front of him, and it came to $300 per kilogram. Maybe he thought I considered this too expensive, because next he offered me a whole animal for $4,000. I said that, in view of not knowing which pangolin species he was offering, and therefore what it would likely weigh, I thought this was expensive; but he was happy to negotiate, and – in three steps – I bargained him down to a price of $3,000. He obviously thought I was a serious potential buyer, because he then took me upstairs to a large dining room, and showed me a private room just off it, with a table laid for 10 people. He said that the price of the private dining room would be included in the price of the pangolin, along with the rest of the dinner. I said I would have to think about it, and he obviously thought I was doubting I would get genuine pangolin, so he said he would bring the pangolin to show me before dinner. The clear implication was that, if it would convince me, they would bring the animal and kill it in front of me to prove that I was getting what I was paying for. In the space of 15 minutes in one restaurant, I had been offered both of the animals that might be the vectors for SARS-1 and SARS-2 (Covid-19).
Our guide also took us to an old part of the city that was home to several traditional medicine shops. In two shops I was offered pangolin scales (which still had flesh attached) in sealed clear plastic envelopes; and in a third shop I was told that I could have pangolin scales if I came back in an hour.
In a nearby shopping centre that extended over three floors, a lot of the shops were selling handicrafts. Ivory, tiger claws, bear claws, carved tiger (maybe lion) bone trinkets, pangolin scales and other illegal wildlife products were all openly on sale in several places.
One got the impression that both Vietnam and Laos were vast illegal wildlife supermarkets. But they are dwarfed by neighbouring China which, with its 1.4 billion people, is the largest consumer on earth of wildlife products, both legal and illegal.
Consumption of products from the natural world is deep-rooted in many Eastern cultures: traditional medicine and eat-anything poverty are two major drivers at one end of the consumer hierarchy; luxury food consumption, recreational use and status are at the other.
From a medical science perspective, the consumption by humans of products from wild animal species can be very dangerous. Pathogens are microscopic organisms that can cause disease, and medical scientists have been concerned for many years about pathogens that can be found in wild animals infecting humans. AIDS (thought to have first crossed from chimps to humans about 100 years ago), bird flu, swine flu, Ebola (first identified in 1976), SARS and Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS) are all potentially deadly viruses that have crossed from animals to humans.
AIDS (thought to have first crossed from chimps to humans about 100 years ago), bird flu, swine flu, Ebola (first identified in 1976), SARS and Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS) are all potentially deadly viruses that have crossed from animals to humans.
It is stunningly irresponsible that, with over 100 years of evidence that animals can be vectors for viruses deadly to humans, China and other Far Eastern countries have not listened and learnt. During my trip to Vietnam and Laos I had been offered snake wine, snake bile wine, cobra flesh, pangolin meat, tiger cake, civet cat and much else. With their burgeoning trade in, and consumption of, wildlife products, which carry pathogens that can prove fatal to humans, these communities are placing themselves and the rest of the world at risk. DM/ ML
Richard Peirce is best known as a shark conservationist and as former Chairman of the Shark Conservation Society and the Shark Trust. A committed environmental activist, he has authored several books, including Orca (apex predators), Giant Steps (elephants), Cuddle Me Kill Me (canned lion hunting), Nicole (about a shark’s marathon journey), and The Poacher’s Moon (rhinos). Pangolins: Scales of Injustice is published by Struik Nature (R160). The ebook is available now, while the print edition will be published on World Pangolin Day (21 Feb 2021).
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