Nature

China still driving the pangolin to extinction

Despite the headlines government still promotes pangolin scales in traditional medicines

China secured huge international media coverage when its Government-controlled State media reported pangolin scales had been removed as a raw ingredient in traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) – but in reality they can still be legally traded and used.

The story that pangolin was dropped from the official TCM pharmacopoeia, a compendium of approved traditional and Western medicines, was widely interpreted as a ‘ban’ on pangolin scales.

But the London-based Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA) has discovered they have not been banned at all – behind the spin, pangolin scales are still listed as an ingredient in patent medicine formulae found in the official reference book.

Pangolins are the world’s most trafficked mammal and have been identified as a possible intermediate host in the outbreak of the coronavirus pandemic, although this has yet to be conclusively proven.

Following the reports in China’s State media earlier this month, EIA raised concerns that pangolin scales might still be listed as an ingredient in patent medicines in the pharmacopoeia.

Now EIA has obtained a copy of the 2020 pharmacopoeia and can confirm that while pangolin has been removed from a section listing key TCM ingredients, it is still included as an ingredient in patent medicines – meaning the Government continues to legitimise and promote the medicinal use of pangolin scales.

Chris Hamley, EIA Senior Pangolin Campaigner, said: “Now that it is clear pangolin scales remain in the pharmacopoeia, it is essential the Government of China takes unambiguous, credible and decisive action to fully ban the use of pangolins in TCM.

“This should include the complete removal of pangolin scales from the pharmacopoeia, an end to the licensing of the production and sale of medicines containing pangolin scales and the destruction of all pangolin scale stockpiles.

“Without comprehensive action to eliminate demand for the use of pangolin scales in TCM in China, the ongoing industrial trafficking of pangolins and concurrent decimation of wild populations will continue.”

He added: “Recent steps taken by the Chinese Government to strengthen pangolin protections are a positive move and we applaud the work of those in China campaigning to close the country’s domestic pangolin scale medicine market.

EIA researchers cross-referenced entries in the 2020 pharmacopoeia with the 2010 and 2015 editions and identified eight patent medicine formulae which still list pangolin scales as an ingredient, including Zaizao Wan, which comes in pill form and is used to help blood circulation, and Awei Huapi Gao, a treatment used to relieve, among other things, abdominal pain.

Pangolin scales are in high demand for use in TCM, a major driver of illegal trade from across Africa and Asia into China.

The 2020 pharmacopoeia also continues to include leopard bone and bear bile as officially recognised ingredients. In March this year, EIA reported on the ongoing commercial trade of leopard bone products in China and, evidently, official promotion of medicinal use of leopard bone continues.

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