A pangolin hunts for ants.

Pangolins are one of the most trafficked animals on the planet. © 2630ben/ Shutterstock

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China removes pangolin scales from list of official medicines

Pangolin scales are no longer approved for use in traditional Chinese medicine.

Pangolins, the world's only scaly mammals, are one of the most trafficked animals on Earth.

The demand for their hard scales is highest in Asia, where they are commonly used in traditional medicines. Poachers making a living from this demand have depleted wild populations in Asia and Africa, and the pangolin's future is uncertain.

Chinese authorities have taken a first step in protecting this animal and clamping down on trade. The scales have been taken off the Chinese pharmacopoeia, an official list of medicines and ingredients approved for use.

It comes on the back of further hopeful news, as the Chinese State Forestry and Grassland Administration (SFGA) has also recently raised the protected status of pangolins to the highest level, with strict penalties on those caught killing or trading them. They are now in Class 1, the same level as pandas.

There are four Asian and four African species of pangolin, and there is a global ban on any commercial trade in their parts. Illegal trading is still a problem, and poachers can make large sums of money from their keratin scales, which in some cultures are believed to cure a wide range of ailments. Their meat is also considered a luxury food in China and Vietnam.

Of the eight species, three are classed as critically endangered by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN), and it is estimated that authorities seized hundreds of thousands of animals just last year.

A close-up photo of overlapping pangolin scales.

Pangolin scales are made of keratin, the same substance that makes up human nails. © Nick Greaves/ Shutterstock

Dr Natalie Cooper, a researcher in the Museum's Life Sciences department, says, 'This is great news for pangolins and will hopefully go a long way towards helping them recover.

'This may be especially important for the four African species - although they are currently less threatened than the four Asian pangolin species, traffickers started to exploit them more once numbers of the Asian species got really low.

'Of course, we still need these rules to be enforced, and unfortunately, other threats such as habitat loss are a huge problem for all eight species, so pangolins aren't out of the woods just yet.'

The international trade in wildlife either for medicines or food has been thrown into the spotlight after the COVID-19 pandemic took hold. Chinese authorities forbade citizens from eating wildlife in February 2020, to maintain biological and ecological safety and prevent major public health risks.

The ban on medicinal use is welcome news for those working to protect these creatures, which benefit they ecosystems they live in. An adult pangolin may consume an estimated 70 million insects every year, providing natural pest control in areas where termites would otherwise cause substantial damage to manmade structures.

It is estimated they save millions of dollars per year in pest control, so if left to thrive they would benefit humans all over the world considerably.

Conservation groups all over the world are fighting to protect pangolins from poachers, and the Museum collections are available to help with that work and play in role in global scientific discovery.

For instance, Museum researchers including Dr Cooper recently completed a project that used the historic collection of pangolin specimens in South Kensington to track their populations over time.

More than 200 pangolin specimens are held at the Museum for research and conservation purposes, and some date back decades.

Confirming data on pangolin population and distribution allows scientists to see the pressures on different species, populations and areas.