Notes from Underground

As the first pandemic of the 21st century, SARS took China and the rest of the international community by storm. It cost the world economy roughly fifty billion dollars, and infected eight thousand people. These weren’t the only casualties of the crisis, however. When the outbreak was traced back to civet cats from a wildlife market in Guangdong province, thousands of the animals were culled in an effort to halt the spread of disease, despite the global science community having identified bats as the source of SARS. In the wake of the outbreak and the cull, China rolled out harsher laws against the wildlife trade. Where open-air markets once bustled with vendors hawking live palm civet, porcupine nettles, pangolin scales, and elephant feet, most wildlife markets are now pale shells of their former selves. But the illegal trade in wildlife has not disappeared. It has just gone underground.

Deer antlers and other wildlife remedies for sale at a wildlife market. Credit: EcoHealth Alliance.

The person at EcoHealth Alliance working to trace these hidden trade routes is Hongying Li, the Programs Coordinator for China. A native of Yunnan province, she comes from the mountainous west of China, where she worked both in national parks and in HIV clinics. She stresses the difficulties associated with this new development in how the once completely legal trade is being regulated—building trust with an entirely new network of suppliers and distributors inherently wary of prying eyes.

Without official records, or at least none that are terribly trustworthy, the only way to learn about the wildlife trade is by seeing firsthand how it works, and by meeting those who take part in it. That being said, there are semi-official channels by which we can glean some numbers on the industry. Take for example the government quotas on the use of pangolins in medicine. There are large discrepancies between the allotted amount of raw pangolin scales and the disproportionately larger quantities of pangolin medicine being produced—it is likely these large gaps in the official reports are being filled with illicitly procured pangolin scales.

Legally raised bamboo rats on a wildlife farm. Credit: EcoHealth Alliance.

But legalization is a double-edged measure. While it allows for more transparency and greater opportunities for regulation, it also provides poachers with the means to launder their product—rinsing it of criminal links, and actually making the process of separating the legitimate from the illicit more opaque. It also increases the appetite that people have for wild meat and wildlife products; an appetite that inevitably grows beyond the means of legal farms to feed it. Consequently, vendors turn to hunters and smugglers to meet a need exacerbated by the apparent abundance of state-sanctioned wildlife products.

This fact was surely one of the motivations behind China’s recent ban on its domestic ivory trade – one that marks an interesting change of direction for the nation. Despite having just ten years ago increased support of, and investment in the artisans who tool it into a dazzling array of trinkets and other coveted luxury items, it is now slowly phasing out its domestic ivory market.

But there are other ways to keep pangolins from extinction. UNEP and FREELAND, both NGOs, have put up large banners in Beijing’s airport to warn traffickers about the legal ramifications of being caught, and the moral implications of unchecked poaching for those who buy the product. But there is really far less demand in Beijing for wild meat than there is in Southern and South Eastern China. And those areas don’t get their supplies from Beijing’s airport, but from across the hilly border with Myanmar, Laos, and Vietnam. Why? There hasn’t been an official Chinese pangolin sighting in the wild for ten years. There are none left in China.

A legal wildlife farm in China, and an EcoHealth Alliance ally working to stop the illegal wildlife trade. Credit: EcoHealth Alliance.

A particularly targeted effort has been in the maternity wards and clinics where pangolin medicine is popular—powdered pangolin scales are thought to ease childbirth and recovery from labor, as is the consumption of pangolin meat. A coalition of NGOs spreads awareness around more scientific methods of promoting lactation that don’t encourage the use of pangolin medicine.

Education is important—it’s one of the reasons Hongying thinks demand might actually peter out naturally as older generations pass away—younger Chinese consume far less wild animals and wild animal products than their forebears. Other programs like those implemented by the Beijing Aita Animal Protection Foundation are partly responsible for this heartening development. They distribute educational picture books whose pages depict brightly colored cartoon sun bears and pangolins explaining the damages poaching causes.  

Of course we’re concerned about habit disruption, loss of biodiversity, and species extinction. But we’re also trying to prevent the outbreak of pandemics. Tackling both issues is more difficult in a post-SARS China, in part because the pathways along which pathogens spread have gone underground and have become more difficult to monitor. Ironically, those who stand to benefit the most from our investigation and those of our colleagues are the very wildlife traffickers we are trying to stop. It was thought that spillovers were singular events—what happened when a susceptible individual found themselves in the wrong place at the wrong time—the single spark that set a powder keg alight. But it’s becoming clearer, rather, that spillovers occur in people who experience prolonged exposure to a host population where a virus is slowly circulating. This is why it is all the more urgent to learn who is spending the most consistent time with potentially infected animals.

Southern China with its iconic Karst mountains. Credit: EcoHealth Alliance.

Hongying is in the process of finding the right leverage, or the right argument to preserve pangolin numbers, and curb the spread of diseases via the wildlife trade. There’s little evidence that pangolins carry the same number of potentially pandemic viruses that bats, non-human primates, and rodents do. And yet there are still solid public health reasons for curbing the pangolin trade. The rare animal is a serious source of revenue for poachers. In theory, this revenue enables wildlife criminals to trade higher-risk mammals in greater numbers. Cutting demand for pangolins will reduce the resources of poachers who trade wild animals that carry potentially pandemic viruses.

Because the pangolin trade really is global—the animals are moved from Africa and India through South East Asia on their way to China—any solution to the problem must be equally global. Hongying’s work, and the work of EcoHealth Alliance, is just one piece in the global effort to keep both pangolins, and the people affected by wildlife diseases alive.