Wealth inequality behind the extinction of mammals

Over 12 tons of pangolin scales worth around $38.1m are displayed in an undisclosed site in Singapore. Singapore has seized more than 25 tons of pangolin scales belonging to tens of thousands of the endangered mammals in two raids over the past week. Picture: National Parks Board/AP

IN January 2019, Oxfam published figures showing that the 26 richest billionaires on earth own the same wealth as the 3.8bn people who make up the poorest half of the earth’s population. The ratio is 26: 3,800,000,000,000. Some world we live in, when you come to think of it. How did we get it so wrong?

Apart from the cost on human life, this imbalance is leading indirectly to the extinction of many animal species and stripping us all of the inheritance of nature. An example is the imminent extinction of pangolins, an entirely harmless mammal native to Africa, India, Nepal, Bhutan, Bangladesh, Myanmar, Indochina, Taiwan, and China; the Chinese population is all but extinct.

Pangolins, a.k.a scaly anteaters, are slow-moving, secretive creatures, mostly of domestic cat size. Of the eight species, all but one is nocturnal. There are long-tailed, giant, and tree varieties. All live almost exclusively on ants and termites, extracting them from trees with their 40cm long tongues. Thus, they control populations. Where pangolins aren’t prey to poachers, plantations of commercial trees do not have to be sprayed with poisons which also kill swathes of useful insects and wildlife.

They are the only mammals with scales; these made of keratin, the same material as our fingernails. If attacked, they roll into a ball, a defence against lions, hyenas, and tigers but not against humans. They vary in size 30cm to to 85cm. All are scaled: Sunda pangolins, 55cm, carry 1,000 scales.

Those who harvest them are members of those 3.8m poorest people on earth. The poor cannot be blamed. They live in grinding poverty like their parents and grandparents, and their children will suffer the same fate. There is a way out of the poverty: A single pangolin, the value of its scales and meat, will change their lives, and those of their children, forever.

Pangolin are the most trafficked creatures on earth. It’s a bitter irony that the scales of some shine like gold.

It is a tragedy for the creatures and ourselves that they should be so valued. Like every animal, vegetable, and mineral, they have their function in the network. Even the unearthly items that live in the abyss of the ocean have their job to do. John Donne’s familiar lines summarise it, and one can substitute the word ‘creature’ for ‘man’.

“No man is an island entire of itself; Every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main; If a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less [. . .] Any man’s death diminishes me, [. . .] And therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls;/ It tolls for thee.”

And no creature is an island. Every extinction diminishes us, diminishes the natural world around us. The wondrous construction of these creatures cannot be replicated by all our ingenuity. And let us not “send to know” what creature is next. Between 150 and 200 species of plant, insect, bird and mammal becomes extinct every 24 hours.

This is nearly 1,000 times the “historical” rate. Nothing has been experienced like this since the demise of the dinosaurs 65m years ago. Seismic or cosmic shifts annihilated them. Now, we humans are the liquidators and, if we continue, will liquidate ourselves.

A wild pangolin now at risk of extinction.

Add to our ongoing loss the beauty and inspiration of nature, the depletion of its pollinators to our global food supplies, the loss of the encyclopaedic cures wild creatures may contribute to our health and wellbeing. In bears have been found treatments for Alzheimer’s, in sharks for Parkinson’s, in platypuses for diabetes, in naked mole rats, one of the ugliest creatures on earth, for cancer.

Who knows what yet undiscovered human cures might be found in pangolins or the thousands of other creatures threatened with extinction by human activity. The Chinese buy the pangolin scales for folk medicine, and the bodies as an edible delicacy. The folk medicine has no basis in science, but who knows: Perhaps the right questions haven’t been asked.

If, in the case of pangolins, scientific evidence of curative effects were found, the creatures might even be farmed, making them less profitable to remove from the wild. Currently, their trafficking alone comprises 20% of illegal world wildlife trade.

The ban in place is not effective. So far this month, 28 tons of scales were seized by Singapore Customs from two ships from Nigeria bound for Vietnam. The scales, many little bigger than a human thumb nail, filled 900 sacks, the product of 38,000 pangolin of four species.

All pangolin species are now threatened with extinction; 300 are killed daily. Conservation bodies seeking donations can be found on the internet. We should all donate.

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