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Updated Aug 5, 2020
A white-bellied pangolin, one of four African pangolin species
A white-bellied pangolin, one of four African pangolin species (Photo by Isaac Kasamani/via AFP)

In Gabon, the national parks’ wildlife capture unit recently succeeded in capturing a giant ground pangolin—the largest of Africa’s four pangolin species—in Lopé-Okanda National Park. A team of scientists, led by wildlife ecologist Dr. David Lehmann, are researching this elusive scaled mammal as part of the European Union’s Ecofac6 program, which supports the preservation of fragile ecosystems and biodiversity in Central Africa. They hope that studying the 38-kilogram captured pangolin will give them insight that could help in the fight against poaching.

In Africa, China, and Southeast Asia, pangolins are prized for their meat, blood, and scales for spiritual and medicinal purposes. Since the four Asian pangolin species have been hunted to the brink of extinction, smugglers are increasingly poaching African pangolins to meet the demands of the illicit trade. The African Wildlife Foundation estimates that 2.7 million pangolins are poached each year from African rainforests.

Professor Lee White, Gabon’s minister of forests, oceans, environment and climate change, says over the past three years the Gabonese authorities have caught ivory poachers operating near the Cameroonian border with sacks of pangolin scales, a sign that existing trafficking syndicates in the region have expanded their work to include pangolin poaching.

Dr. Lehmann and his team worry that should pangolin numbers continue to drop or, in the worst-case scenario, if the animal were to become extinct, it would have a cascading effect on rainforest biomes, since pangolins play a key role in managing insect populations. A single pangolin can consume up to 70 million ants and termites per year.


The COVID-19 Link

Some experts believe that the COVID-19 pandemic began when a virus jumped from a wild animal species to a human at a market in Wuhan, China. There has also been speculation that the pangolin could be an intermediate host of the novel coronavirus. This was probably why, in June, pangolin parts were left out of the Chinese Pharmacopoeia, the official compendium of traditional Chinese and Western medicines.


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