ON-LINE ISSUE JULY
By: Jeff Salz
Photos: Courtesy of Jeff Salz and The Wonderful Photography of Adrian Steirn
Revenge of the Pangolin: Corona Time with the “World’s Most Unusual Mammal”
It’s only a tragedy if nothing changes
While ultimate blame has not been assigned for the source of our current pandemic, one unusual animal remains the primary suspect. If found guilty, there will never have been a perpetrator more innocent.
The pangolin is so non-aggressive that it doesn’t even have teeth. Instead, it picks up insects with a sticky tongue longer than its entire body—including its elongated, snout-like head. It’s the only mammal covered from head to toe in scales—the scales that are the gentle pangolin’s only defense. Feeling threatened, it curls itself into a spiny ball until it resembles something like a giant artichoke, emits a stinky fluid from its posterior and hopes for the best (don’t try this at home). Timid loners, the pangolin’s social life consists of a handful of meet-ups over the course of a lifetime to mate and produce a litter, which a couple raises over about two years. Sleeping by day in a cozy underground burrow, heading out at night to feast on ants and termites, a pangolin’s existence is solitary and largely uneventful. Until now.
In recent years, an onslaught of loggers and farmers has led to extensive deforestation and habitat destruction. The new roadways bring hunters in search of exotic species to harvest for local and international consumption. The money is too good to resist.
Pangolin flesh, valued up to $600 a kilogram, is a popular delicacy in the upscale restaurants of China and Vietnam. Dried and powdered, pangolin scales are a prized ingredient for Chinese folk remedies prescribed for a wide variety of issues including anxiety, poor circulation, acne, hysterical crying in children, women thought to be possessed by devils or ogres and male impotence. In China, “decoctions and infused liquids made from pangolins” remained eligible for reimbursement by government-funded health insurance as recently as last year.
To meet the almost limitless demand, hunters from Saharan Africa to southeast Asia beat and boil alive hundreds of pangolins every day.
“While they may look like dinosaurs, with their unique scales and claws, pangolins are very docile animals. They aren’t aggressive at all,” says zoologist Scott Wilson, Head of Field Programs at the Chester Zoo. “When traffickers approach using dogs to track down the nocturnal mammals or others choking them out from their nests with smokers, the terrified pangolins will not fight back. Frightened by the hunters they just curl up into a ball to try and protect themselves. Wilson adds: "It would be a very scary experience for them.”
Smuggled across international borders by the many thousands every year has thrust the shy pangolins into the celebrity limelight: winner of the world’s most dubious distinction as “most trafficked animals on planet Earth.”
Zoonosis: A Word You’ll Need to Know
So, what’s the plight of a pangolin got to do with the pandemic that is killing hundreds of thousands of humans, bringing sickness and suffering to millions more?
It’s called zoonosis–the transmission of disease from animals to humans.
According to the United States Agency for International Development, about 75% of all emerging and re-emerging infectious diseases are zoonotic – meaning they come from animals. These include, among others, SARS, H5N1 avian flu, the H1N1 influenza virus, and now we welcome to the list Covid-19.
Peter Daszak—aka The Virus Hunter—knows a lot about zoonosis. As president of EcoHealth Alliance, a nonprofit that works globally to identify and study our vulnerabilities to emerging infectious diseases, he was among a team of experts who warned the World Health Organization in early 2018 that a disease bearing Covid-19’s characteristics could cause the next pandemic. Says Daszak, “The idea that this virus escaped from a lab is just pure baloney. These pandemic viruses originate in wildlife.”
“We’ve been working on this for 20 years. We tracked every known emerging disease to its origin from the scientific literature. Then we tested, with mathematical models, what’s driving that: What are the causes that could underlie the emergence of these new diseases? And what we found is they emerge in places where human populations are very dense and growing. They emerge in the tropics mainly, because that’s where the wildlife diversity is, and that the viruses that become pandemic come from wildlife.
And the other key factor is land-use change, people moving into new areas, encroachment into wildlife habitat, building roads into a forest for a mine or for a logging camp. There are many, many examples of diseases, like Ebola, SARS and others, HIV itself, from this. And that’s a global trend that will drive the rise of future pandemics.”
Since January 2020, the consensus among the scientific community has been that the novel coronavirus had originated in horseshoe bats; however, based on what was known about the transmission of earlier zoonotic diseases, it was unlikely that bats directly gave the virus to humans. Instead, scientists suspected that the bat coronavirus infected another animal, an “intermediate host,” which subsequently transmitted the virus to humans. Analyzing DNA samples, researchers from the Baylor College of Medicine in Houston, Texas traced the disease back to the pangolins.
Dr Joseph F. Petrosino, Baylor Chair in the Department of Molecular Virology and Microbiology and head of the research team explains: “It appears a pangolin virus and bat virus found themselves in the same animal, which led to a devastating recombination event, creating the pandemic strain. This may have happened in the wild, or where these animals were brought together in unnaturally close proximity.” Bats and pangolins were among the tightly packed tenants of stacked cages in the open markets of Wuhan where waste and fluids of all kinds flowed freely from one species to another.
It’s also possible that the DNA mash-up could have occurred in the wild. Ray Jansen of Tswane University in Pretoria who heads the African Pangolin Working Group notes that pangolins “forage pretty much blindly. Their long tongue waves around in the nest randomly and collects ants and termites on its sticky surface. This creates a very high likelihood of infection from bat feces. Of course, the cross-contamination could also very well have taken place in the market itself where the meat of both species was prepared on the same chopping board. ... However, the mutated virus was very likely in the pangolin already.”
Kate Jones, Chair of Ecology and Biodiversity at University College London sees the challenge as ongoing and systemic. “The disruption of pristine forests driven by logging, mining, and rapid urbanization is bringing people into closer contact with animal species they may never have been near before. We invade tropical forests and other wild landscapes, which harbor so many species of animals and plants—and within those creatures, so many unknown viruses. We cut the trees, [and] we kill the animals or cage them and send them to markets. We disrupt ecosystems, and we shake viruses loose from their natural hosts. When that happens, they need a new host. Often, we are it.”
As a freshman studying ecology at Prescott College in the ‘60s, I learned that disease is the pruning shears wielded by Mother Nature to trim back any species that grows so large it threatens the survival of other species or the delicate balance of the ecosystem itself. You don’t have to be a believer in the Gaia hypothesis to observe that humans are out of control, running amok on the planet, pulling everything out by its roots. Here she comes to the rescue. Running with scissors.
The current pandemic is not something that just happened. Nor is this something we did. This is something we are doing, and if we keep doing, will likely get worse. A lot worse. It’s quite possible this may be a training exercise, and that the next iteration of virus will be even meaner. Maybe it won’t be so nice to babies. Or be content culling such a small percentage of our herd.
But please, let’s be clear: Mother Nature is not the antagonist here. If there is a villain in this viral kabuki gone global, it appears to be us.
However, as we all know, dastardly evildoers themselves are usually equal victims, trapped in darkness to which they are blind. In our case, it's not the intention but the circumstance that has made us “bad actors.” In the words of Jessica Rabbit: “I’m not bad ... I’m just drawn that way.”
Will we awaken in time to realize that we’re both protagonists and authors of this “graphic novel COVID-19” event? The final scene is yet to be penned. Will our potential for making good choices finally overcome our propensity for making bad ones?
It’s only a tragedy if nothing changes.
Virus Hunter, Peter Daszak concludes: “We are making ourselves sick by making the planet sick. That’s really the message that needs to come through from this. Because if we just treat this as another disease, wait for a vaccine and then think, ‘Great, it’s all over,’ well, I’ve got the news. There are 1.7 million more viruses out there that will be emerging in the future. We can either wait for them to emerge and get sick and have another global recession, or we can get out there and readdress our relationship with wildlife and make the planet a little bit healthier.”
Pangolins are the most trafficked animals on Earth. As we mourn the affect this trade has on the individuals that suffer it, we must also see that this global demand and tragedy created the circumstances that have likely resulted in the current pandemic. The risk it poses to humans is certainly another reason to stand up against this behavior.
I had a waking dream the other afternoon. I saw a grandfather pangolin – graying and shambling Yoda-like from his burrow, shading his eyes from the sun with one great curved claw as he looked up at me with dark black eyes along his impossibly long snout.
“Hrrrumph,” he snorted. “What are you doing in my dream?”
“This is my dream,” I replied.
“Hrrumph”, he repeated. “Who was here first?”
“I suppose you were. You pangolins, I mean.”
“Correct,” he announced, seemingly pleased. “Would that not make this my dream?”
“I suppose so,” I admitted. “Then I must ask what does this dream of yours consist of?”
With surprising agility, he reached into the ample gray hair of his furry tummy–the only place on his body not covered in scales–emerging with a pair of spectacles that he ceremoniously placed upon the base of his nose causing him to appear most studious.
“Hrrrrrumph,” he said. “It was about you. You and all your brothers and sisters. Suddenly you all stopped being in such a hurry. You stayed in your houses so all the rest of us could come out again. You played with each other and took time to remember how fun it is just to be alive ... to explore and climb trees and discover things ... to marvel ... maybe just snack on some ants now and then and relax. And little by little your hearts opened again to each other and to all the rest of us, your brothers and sisters in nature.”
“And then what happened?” I asked.
“That’s all.” He turned and shuffled back toward his hole. “Then we just had fun.”
What to Do? Helpful Hints from a “Pangolian Perspective”
In wildness is the preservation of the world - Henry David Thoreau.
Trees have standing. Pangolins pursue their own purposes. The planet has a plan of its own. It does not belong to us; we belong to it. Curb your reproductive enthusiasm. Let’s stop screwing around and concern ourselves primarily with ensuring that we leave enough for everyone else.
Voluntary simplicity—not involuntary complicity
Buying into mass consumerism undermines every form of life, including our own. It’s supremely important to (as EF Schumacher wrote) “Live simply so others may simply live.” One gift of the pandemic is to remind us that we become immensely rich the instant we realize there is so very little we actually need.
Exercise your right to exercise!
Get out there ... and go! Whether it’s the back lot or the back of beyond, adventure is not about risking death; it’s about daring to truly live. Step out past your comfort zone, your pre-conceived self-limitations, interact with the world in a way that expands your “circle of compassion” (thank you Albert E.) until it includes life in all its forms so deeply and personally that any affront to nature–be it a person or a pangolin–is felt by you so profoundly that you cannot help but “stand.”
Adopt a Pangolin
Support the World Wildlife Fund's global efforts to protect wild animals and their habitats by adopting a plush pangolin for yourself or a friend. Included are a formal adoption certificate, a full-color photo and a species spotlight card full of fascinating information about your new pangolin pal.
When you donate through WWFGifts, you help create a safer world for wildlife, protect amazing places, and build a future where people live in harmony with nature. Your donation will support WWF's conservation work around the globe and it makes you a WWF member.
The Wonderful Photography of Adrian Steirn.
Adrian Steirn is donating 10% of revenue from the Pangolin Man series to The Tikki Hywood Trust. The trust raises awareness and operates good conservation practices to help pangolins and the world’s lesser known endangered species.
What to Do? Helpful Hints from a “Pangolian Perspective”
Read more on ISSUE JULY 20
- TRAVEL & ADVENTURE – An Ayahuasca Ceremony In Ecuador - November 16, 2020
- TRAVEL & ADVENTURE – A Visit to the Timeless Heart of Ecuador - August 18, 2020
- TRAVEL AND ADVENTURE – Corona Time with the “World’s Most Unusual Mammal” - July 3, 2020