Richard Collins: It’s time to expel superstition about pangolins

It is easier to accept a convincing new idea than to banish an old false one. 

Richard Collins: It’s time to expel superstition about pangolins

Dumping deeply entrenched notions is exceedingly difficult; many of today’s violent conflicts are rooted in delusions persisting from the Dark Ages.

Attitudes to nature are no different. One old chestnut, the Doctrine of Signatures, continues to wreak havoc on vulnerable wild creatures. It even threatens to render some of the world’s most iconic species extinct.

The notion, that plants and animals exist solely to serve us, dates back to Roman times. It was a central tenet of medicine in the Middle Ages. In the 16th century, Paracelsus declared: “Nature marks each growth according to its curative benefit.”

The Signature of All Things, published by the German Lutheran theologian Jakob Bohme in 1622, gave the doctrine its name. God had created the world for our use and benefit. To help us recognise its function, he gave each plant and animal a telltale ‘signature’.

The botanist William Coles, for example, wrote that “the little holes whereof the leaves of Saint John’s wort are full, doe resemble the pores in the skin”.

The plant, therefore, “is profitable for all hurts and wounds that can happen thereunto”.

Plants offered treatments to diseases of organs they resembled. Thus we have ‘lungwort’, ‘liverwort’, ‘spleenwort’ , the suffix ‘wort’ indicating supposed medicinal properties.

The Doctrine of Signatures was mostly harmless, even beneficial; the ‘placebo effect’ of bogus treatments helped patients recover, as it still does today. However, it can also be malignant.

Believers concluded that the bodies of tigers and bears, the world’s most powerful and strongest land predators, contain substances promoting strength and vigour.

Tiger whiskers offer remedies for toothache, their eyes provide treatments for blindness, and eating tiger penises helps reduce erectile dysfunction. None of these supposed benefits has been confirmed by science.

The rhinoceros horn resembles a phallus, so it must contain substances promoting fertility and vigour. However, horn is simply keratin, compacted hair, with no medicinal properties whatsoever.

However, the myth persists and rhinos are being slaughtered, particularly in Africa, to feed insatiable Chinese and Vietnamese demands. Horn is now more highly priced than gold.

Artefacts made from it have become status symbols. Of the five surviving rhino species, three are listed as critically endangered while a fourth is deemed vulnerable.

Ireland is implicated in the trade; members of the ‘Rathkeale Rovers’ rhino-horn smuggling gang have been jailed.

Tigers and rhinos are wildlife celebrities. According to a recent report, however, the world’s most trafficked wild animal is the humble pangolin, which has no media profile to defend it.

Between 10,000 and 200,000 of these harmless unobtrusive creatures are killed illegally each year. Paul Hilton’s picture of a pit containing 4,000 dead pangolins won him the 2016 Wildlife Photographer of the Year award.

Pangolins are covered in hard, pine-cone-resembling, scales. Like hedgehogs, they curl into an armoured ball when threatened, the face tucked under the tail.

Lacking teeth, pangolins use pebbles in gizzards to break down their food. Anal glands emit a defensive foul-smelling substance, just as skunks do.

The giant ground-pangolin is about a metre in length from nose to tail. Tree-dwelling species have prehensile tails. These extraordinary creatures deserve our support.

The scales which protect pangolins may have inspired beliefs that they offer protection from disease. In traditional Chinese medicine, they are used to promote blood circulation, control swelling and reduce inflammation.

Long ago, they kept evil spirits at bay. There are eight pangolin species, four African and four Asian. Two are listed as critically endangered. Four others are deemed vulnerable.

  • Ling Xu et al. ‘An Overview of Pangolin Trade in China’. TRAFFIC. September 2016

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