Pangolins and pangolin products are in use for medical purpose in many countries across the Indian ocean. Stories about this animal were gathered and written by students. They are all part of a pedagogical project, funded by the National University of Singapore and the Université de Paris. The Bestiary site is a work-in-progress and a participatory educational tool, representing animals whose products or body parts are used to promote health and healing.

Scaly Skin

A Story by Zheng Tao William

Pangolin scales were used in recipes that were thought to expel evil spirits in the Tang dynasty. The idea that pangolin scales could help lactating women secrete milk, something that is still widely believed today, first arose during the same time period.

Pangolin, also known as scaly anteater, is a small mammal found in Asia and Africa. It is the only mammal in the world to have large protective keratin scales covering its skin, and these scales are the main reason why they are being extensively hunted throughout Asia, resulting in all eight pangolin species being listed as “Threatened” under the IUCN Red List. The Chinese Pangolin is currently “critically endangered”.

Pangolins have very strong claws that allow them to dig and excavate termite and ant nests for food, resulting in Chinese legends about pangolins being wayfarers with an extensive and hidden network of underground tunnels to travel around the world. In fact, their Cantonese name “Chua-shua-cap”, literally means “the animal who bores through mountains”, reflecting the Chinese beliefs in the Pangolin’s power to dig through earth.

Pangolins have played a large role in Chinese folk medicine for a long time. Pangolin scales were used in recipes that were thought to expel evil spirits in the Tang dynasty. The idea that pangolin scales could help lactating women secrete milk, something that is still widely believed today, first arose during the same time period. In present day traditional Chinese medicine (TCM), pangolin scales are believed to have many medicinal properties such as being able to dissolve blood clots and improve blood circulation. However, most of these claims are unfounded by any research. 

Pangolin flesh is also treated as a delicacy among the Chinese, as it tastes similar to chicken meat but it is far more nutritious. Pangolin scales and flesh are the two most popular body parts among the Chinese, but other body parts are used as well. For example, pangolin wine is produced by boiling rice wine together with a baby pangolin and it is thought to have various healing properties such as improved breathing.

Pangolins are extremely popular in the black market due to the demand for their body parts, and it is currently the most trafficked animal in the world, resulting in a critical drop to their population numbers. Thus, more effort is necessary to help conserve the species. The extensive poaching of pangolins which led to its critically endangered state has recently prompted China to remove the use of pangolin scales in TCM. Since 2020, pangolin scales are no longer approved for use in TCM, and this move would hopefully make a significant contribution to pangolin conservation.

Pangolin, © Budak, 2016, Flickr CC-BY-NC-ND-2.0

Value for Asian medicine

The possibility of pangolins being zoonoses carriers brings to focus the recent and ongoing covid-19 pandemic too. Caused by the SARS-CoV-2, the pathogen has taken the world by a storm, and current hypotheses surmise that bats may have been the original hosts for the SARS-CoV-2 virus. However, an intermediary animal could have played a fundamental role in facilitating the transfer of the virus to humans. Since the origin of the disease is traced to a wildlife market in Wuhan, many animals could be identified as possible carriers. The Malayan pangolin is one such example, and recently, a SARS-CoV-2 related coronavirus has been identified within the species in Southern China. 

Genomic sequencing has shown that this pangolin-associated coronavirus bears strong similarity to SARS-CoV-2 in terms of receptor binding domains. Hence, this serves as strong evidence that the pangolin may very well be the host that resulted in the emergence of the SARS-CoV-2 coronavirus. However, further studies must be conducted to substantiate this claim. Moreover, research has uncovered that the bat coronavirus, RaTG13, was not able to bind to receptors within pangolins or humans, and therefore the path chain of the coronavirus to humans still remains unclear. Since the research has proven that pangolin coronavirus can in fact bind to receptors within humans, handling of pangolins should be done with precaution, and the selling of wild pangolins in wet markets should be controlled to prevent history from repeating itself.

Another way in which pangolins might transmit diseases to humans is through ticks that are found on their body. There are several species of ticks that are found to feed on both pangolins and humans, and this could potentially cause diseases in the human host. One such species of tick, Ornithodoros moubata, transmits Borrelia duttoni, a bacterium that causes relapsing fever. The Mediterranean fever is also another disease that could be transmitted from pangolins to human through the Rhipicephalus simus tick intermediary. Hence, one must keep a lookout for such ticks after careful handling of the pangolins to prevent contracting such diseases.

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