The unofficial holiday of World Pangolin Day falls on Saturday, Feb. 15 this year and comes at an interesting as the animal has been linked to the ongoing coronavirus.
Although it is not known where the virus — which has infected tens of thousands globally — originated from, researchers suggest that the animal has acted as an “intermediate host,” according to The New York Times.
So, what is a pangolin?
According to the World Wildlife Fund, it’s a scaly, ant-eating mammal that kind of looks like a cross between an armadillo, an anteater, and a badger.
It’s certainly not a commonly seen creature outside of Asia and Africa, but it is one of the most trafficked animals on the planet, according to The New York Times, which might have contributed to the virus’ worldwide spread.
However, it’s not entirely clear how the animal could have spread this disease to humans.
According to Business Insider, the animals are often poached for their scales (which are made of keratin) that are marketed as medicine and the animal’s meat is considered a delicacy in China and Vietnam. So, the virus could have spread from a bat to a pangolin to humans through the consumption of the animal.
Researchers from South China Agricultural University found that coronavirus that presented in human patients was 99% identical to the virus taken from wild pangolins.
Pangolins, when they are in the wild, are not considered deadly animals. Most people never interact with them since they are mostly nocturnal and have no teeth. Eight species of pangolins are threatened with extinction and three are on the critically endangered list.
The real culprit lies in the animal trafficking trade. According to Phys.org, these animals are often captured and kept in poor conditions as they travel long distances where they are kept in close quarters with not only unhealthy or dead animals but human shoppers as well. This isn’t only an issue in China, because these animals are shipped all over the world.
Unfortunately, putting a stop to illegal animal trafficking in order to stop the spread of the virus is easier said than done.
“If the illegal animal trade was at the root of this outbreak, it is going to be really difficult to trace, and I suspect most of the evidence is gone already — destroyed or spread out across the black market," Benjamin Neuman, chairman of the biology department at Texas A&M University-Texarkana, told The Washington Post. "People aren't going to want to talk, because of the consequences."
The best way to combat the problem, if pangolins are found to be helping to spread the disease, would be clamping down on animal trafficking worldwide. According to Phys.org, a committee in the Chinese Community Party said they will “strengthen market supervision, resolutely ban and severely crackdown on illegal wildlife markets and trade, and control major public health risks from the source.”
Regulation and legislation are the keys to stopping illegal animal trading. For individuals, avoiding places that may give them exposure to the disease, especially markets where pangolin meat and scales are sold, may help. However, if you are concerned with the fate of this animal in response to the outbreak, you can donate to the World Wildlife Fund or join their “Stop Wildlife Crime” campaign.
Since December 2019, the Wuhan coronavirus outbreak has claimed the lives of over 1,300 people and infected nearly 50,000. The crisis has spurred several quarantines and travel bans to and from China as well.