Pangolin Didn’t Kill Itself: For World Pangolin Day 2020

Pangolin Didn’t Kill Itself.

Since news of the novel coronavirus spread late last year, I was struck initially by claims that the virus originated in snakes and/or bats. In my minds eye I saw the image of a witch brewing in a cauldron, “The eye of a newt and the toe of a frog etc..” Snakes and bats have a wide and long history in folklore, and are associated in popular western culture with poisons and spooky happenings, creatures you might take to the Rocky Horror Picture Show, or decorate your house with at Halloween. Recent studies have rebuked claims that Coronavirus came from snakes and/or bats, and instead proposed the missing link is a creature called the Pangolin, in Greek it roughly translated as Horny Scale, and in Malay, “something that rolls up”. 

Until this latest theory for the critter responsible for spreading the novel coronavirus to humans, I new nothing of the Pangolin, and over the last six hours have discovered all manner of remarkable facts, research papers and physiological attributes, that I would like to share. I have been very disappointed with how the news channels and organizations have covered the outbreak, and hope to share at least one fact that will inspire you to go off and do your own research, and perhaps write about how it went, what you discovered and anything else that takes your fancy. 

My goal here is to try and get some of you reading this to continue this train of thought, and imagine that you have access or contact with a team of researchers capable of working in a laboratory and investigating some of these interesting facts. I don’t think it’s too far off the mark to look at the Pangolin itself, and it’s place in genomic studies, and use within the study of immune systems in mammals, and it’s place within various folkloric traditions. Consider that Pangolin scales are in high demand around the world as a medicine, besides the sad fact that their flesh is also viewed as a delicacy, for regular gastric satisfaction. 

The Pangolin is the ONLY scaled mammal in the animal Kingdom, and it is noteworthy that it’s scales probably evolved due to it’s high susceptibility to infections and disease. The hard armour makes a layer of protection, when either under attack or sleeping, and helps reduce the probability of getting infected. The scales are made of keratin, of which human nails and hair are constructed, and some have said that you can get the same health benefits by eating your own toe-nails. No matter how quacky and non-scientific you may view traditional Chinese medicine, it has a much longer history of studying remedies than the Western traditions. That being said, the religious-like, and toxic belief, that certain exotic animal parts will bring you good luck, virility and other narcissistic benefits, is a large part of the problem. This phenomena, it should be added is an upper class one. Pangolin meat is very expensive, and sort after by the rich.  

I mention this because, I suspect, some of the uninformed people who are paranoid about novel coronavirus, and so have a blanket rejection of anything Asian all of a sudden, and will reject any and all Chinese medicine that includes ingredients from animals, plants and insects, when in fact it was probably the conditions brought about by a demand for the meat of Pangolin in China, tha led to the outbreak. Although I think the scales, or the greed driven black-market trafficking of the scales is bad, the demand for live Pangolin meat is probably cause of the outbreak in the Wuhan animal market. (Pangolin were not registered as being sold at the Wuhan market, yet witnesses have said that they were bought and sold there, and kept in unhygienic conditions, they are susceptible to infection.)
Before I go any further, please just do a quick search Pangolin + Scholar, and have a quick browse of the articles. This is where you want to be to get the real low down on these creatures, and once more I stress that information about the Pangolin, and what I am about to tell you is hard to find, and in some cases non-existent from any news source. This last fact is what tipped my interest over into writing mode, as I said, I hope you learn at least one thing from reading this.

The Pangolin is the number ONE most trafficked critter in the global trade of illegal critters. A quick news search will turn up multiple stories of Pangolin busts, on a par with drug busts in their estimated value, this is big business. Who knew that the critter suspected of being the missing link between spreading the virus between animals and humans, was one of the most sought after critters on the black “exotic pet” market? To add insult to injury for the innocent scaly anteater, their natural habitat is being destroyed, resulting in many species of Pangolin classified as critically endangered species. This threat of extinction for the little long tongued critter just makes the black market trafficking in them, for medicine and meat, all the more nauseating. Some might say that there is strong Pangolin karma playing out, this is what happens to humans who treat animals badly, as just a piece of meat. However, the Coronavirus does not target specific people involved in Pangolin trafficking, but anybody in a close radius who is unfortunate enough to contract it. I found it interesting that in Zimbabwe there is folk legend that anybody who kills a Pangolin will have bad luck, if only we would have enforced the laws protecting these critters from poaching earlier and kept in step with tribal wisdom.

Although the breakout is sourced to Wuhan, and a specific market place, the bigger picture reveals a global network of players, traffickers, customers and middle-men, who together make up the supply and demand for Pangolin, and other exotic animals. The following paper reveals that Germany plays a role in Pangolin smuggling operations. It seems the Germans have a taste for exotic pets and animals, and a worldwide customer base. This trafficking must stop immediately, for the sake of all critter-kind, for the endangered and ill-treated Pangolin, to the increasingly endangered homo-sapien sapiens. Like trafficking in arms, drugs and sex, the trafficking in Pangolin are responsible for a large part of the trouble around the planet today. And governments and private business and criminal gangs are becoming indistinguishable, if you look at who profits. The Pangolin, if indeed the carrier of the Coronavirus, may open up new insights into black-market trafficking and activity in all sorts of areas. The greedy don’t care if it’s guns, heroin, teenage-girls or lizards, deregulation helps them thrive. I’d like to reiterate the fact that the racist stereotype going around the meat-heads on-line, claiming the Chinese eat anything, dogs, snakes, cats and bats, is neutralized by the fact that the industry that drives the most dangerous threat to global health (black-market Pangolin dealing) is global in scope, and exclusively the domain of the 1%, those few who can afford exotic, rare, Pangolin meat. The many in China do not partake in such stereotypical feasting on wild animals.    

I have little professional knowledge of diseases in mammals and the conditions by which they spread to humans, but the fact that Pangolin use their urine and faecal matter to communicate with each other, due to their bad eyesight and hearing, hints at the possibility that this is where the virus lies and is spread, diseased waste material from the Pangolin getting into the human food supply, via exotic meat. The other point I would like to draw your attention to is the existing studies on the immune system of the Pangolin, and it’s unique properties. It makes sense to me that if the critters developed scales to protect against vulnerability to disease, they are highly likely to be the culprit and candidate for spreading disease to humans. Studies also show the mistreatment of the Pangolin leads to a higher probability of infection, which brings us back to black markets, illegal trafficking and inhumane treatment. The mucous of the Pangolin, and it’s very long tongue, and unique mouth muscles are also worthy of study. Finally, the insectivore diet of ants, termites and small worms, and how these insects are processed and synthesized chemically by the Pangolin, may lead to a broader understanding of the symbiotic, chemical, relationships.

I sincerely hope that a cheap and easy to manufacture vaccine is discovered soon, and that if indeed, the Pangolin is the culprit, they are treated with more respect globally, and some consideration given to the link between pandemics, animals trafficking and profit-driven trade in live critters.




“As an evolutionary consequence of being covered by scales, it is plausible that the pangolin immune system evolved differently than in other mammals. For example, genes such as IFNE, a unique interferon exclusively expressed in skin epithelial cells and inner mucosa-protected tisssues (e.g., lung, intestines, and reproductive tissues), establish a first line of defense against pathogens in other placental mammals (Day et al. 2008; Ponten et al. 2008; Xi et al. 2012; Fung et al. 2013; Demers et al. 2014; Uhlen et al. 2015). Interferons (IFNs) are a cluster of highly conserved gene families that encode for cytokines expressed by host cells for communication between cells, leading to the activation of the immune system in the presence of pathogens (De Andrea et al. 2002; Fensterl and Sen 2009). Strikingly, the single copy intronless IFNE gene is pseudogenized in both pangolin species (confirmed by Sanger sequencing; sample size = 8) but is intact in 71 other mammalian species”


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