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Medical myths put pressure on pangolins

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A male Sunda Pangolin was released safely back into the wild at Keo Seima Wildlife Sanctuary in June 2020. WCS CAMBODIA

Medical myths put pressure on pangolins

A senior Ministry of Environment official said pangolins were the most traded species of mammal in the world due to their use in traditional Chinese medicine while in Cambodia the species is widely threatened by illegal hunting and trapping carried out to supply that industry.

Ministry spokesman Neth Pheaktra said pangolins in Cambodia were at risk due to the international trade in the animals that uses them as an ingredient in traditional Chinese medicines. He said this as the ministry marked World Pangolin Day on February 19.

Pheaktra emphasised that scientific and medical studies have proven that there is no medical benefit from the consumption of pangolin blood or scales whether alone or blended with other ingredients.

He said the claims that pangolins provided any health benefit was based on superstitious beliefs rather than science. On the contrary, he said the animals were considered to be a dangerous potential vector for the spread of zoonotic diseases that jump from animals to humans.

“The pangolins are listed on the IUCN Red List as critically endangered,” he said referring to the International Union for Conservation of Nature.

“We have no exact data on how many pangolins there are in the world, but the number of pangolins is believed to be sharply declining. Cambodia considers pangolins a rare species and cannot confirm their exact population numbers, but we know the species is suffering from hunting and dealing here,” he said.

Pheaktra explained that pangolins are very gentle and shy animals that do not pose any risk to humans, even when they are encountered or disturbed.

He said pangolins have thick scales all over their bodies and are not very agile so when faced with threats, they always just hide their faces and wrap their tails to protect themselves. This is often effective in stopping another animal from eating it.

He continued that they feed on insects such as ants and termites with their 25cm-long tongues. In general, pangolins can give birth to one or two offspring after five months of pregnancy. Adult pangolins can reproduce at the age of 2 and pangolins can generally live up to 20 years maximum.

He said Cambodia is home to the sunda pangolin – also known as the Malayan or Javan pangolin – and scientifically known as Manis javanica.

Pheaktra emphasised that the ministry and its partner organisations had worked hard to protect and conserve this rare species by removing snares from their habitat and had cracked down on the illegal pangolin trade.

US ambassador to Cambodia Patrick Murphy said on February 20 that the US will continue to help Cambodia with combating the illegal wildlife trade.

“I recently visited endangered pangolins at the Wildlife Alliance release station in the Cardamom Mountains – beautiful creatures, but defenceless and highly trafficked. On World Pangolin Day, we vow to continue US law enforcement assistance to Cambodia to prevent their illegal trade,” he tweeted.

Wildlife Conservation Society Cambodia (WCS Cambodia) country director Ken Serey Rotha said on February 21 that WCS Cambodia had observed World Pangolin Day through social media posts and press releases to raise awareness about them.

Overall, he said, WCS Cambodia had noticed that some species of wild animals were on the increase, many were on the decline and some animal populations remained stable.

“Wild animals we see declining most are the species that move or walk on the ground because they are easily trapped. But we see that the species living or feeding higher in the trees and those that scavenge dead animals are doing better – some of them are on the increase and some are stable,” he added.

He continued that during the Covid-19 pandemic – especially in March and April 2021 during the dry season – a lot of wild animals were hunted and trapped. These illegal hunting activities increased because many people had no work to do.

He said some of the offenders were migrants who returned to their homes after losing employment elsewhere and so they hunted or set traps. However, the activities were not at commercial or large scale; rather they were just subsistence hunting though the total impact was significant when added together.

The World Wide Fund for Nature Cambodia (WWF Cambodia) said that about one million pangolins have been traded over the last 10 years with an estimated 195,000 pangolins traded in 2019 alone.

WWF Cambodia said that in the Kingdom from 2001-2008, records indicated that authorities seized 558 pangolins from hunters and brokers, but this was likely just a tiny fraction of the overall number of pangolins being illegally traded in the country.

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