The Pangolin Strikes Back

The pangolin is a gentle little creature; harmless unless you happen to be an ant. It’s the only mammal covered with scales – picture a pudgy, pointy-nosed otter covered with large fingernails. When threatened it curls into an appealing ball that resembles a large seashell. Its most deadly predator is the human which, unlike other species, doesn’t simply hunt for food, but mindlessly drives any prey it relishes toward extinction. By some reports the pangolin is the most illegally trafficked animal in the world. But, to the satisfaction of those of us who cheer for the underdog, it seems that this mild-mannered little creature may have struck back.

Because it’s exotic but easy to catch, the pangolin’s meat has long been a status food, and its scales believed to have healing power over everything from malarial fever to female hysteria or lactation problems. As a result, unlucky pangolins end up in places like wet-markets, crammed into cages stacked on top of each other, containing different species of miserable and highly stressed animals waiting to be killed for “traditional medicine” or exotic food. It’s not a pretty sight – I once had to walk away from a wet market under the sad gaze of bedraggled, cramped civet cats waiting to be slaughtered as “delicacies”.

Such conditions are ideal for a virus to jump from one species to another. The 2003 SARS outbreak was traced to a wet market where caged bats infected their neighbouring caged civet cats, which in turn infected humans. Although the jury is still out, it seems that a likely path for COVID-19 was from bats to illegally trafficked pangolins to humans. Perversely, in 2003 some humans thought the way to prevent SARS was to kill more civet cats. Let’s hope that reason prevails this time.

Last year at a conference in Pakistan I projected a graph like the one below, showing the growth of human population over the past 100,000 years, illustrating our long history as hunter-gatherers and the sudden eruption triggered by development of agriculture and the later industrial revolution. The picture of the baby on the right was taken when the world population was about 2½ billion people. Today there are about 7½ billion. That baby is me. Our population has tripled in my lifetime and that’s simply not sustainable. As an environmental essayist wrote more than 40 years ago, “Growth for the sake of growth is the ideology of the cancer cell”. Today we might change the metaphor. As far as the rest of life is concerned, the deadly pandemic sweeping the planet is us.

It’s been said that disappearance of the humble ant upon which the pangolin feeds would signal the start of an ecosystem collapse. Conversely, if we were to disappear tomorrow, the ecosystem would begin to recover. COVID-19 is just nature taking its natural course, responding to a species that has itself “gone viral”. Perhaps we should call it “Pangolin’s Revenge” to remind ourselves.

I suppose it’s human nature to want to feel heroic; and it seems that the more safe, secure, and affluent we are, the more we dramatize our challenges. The COVID-19 virus is certainly a challenge, but hoarding and fighting over toilet paper? Stocking up on ammunition and firearms? Bussing people to church and giving them “‘anointed” handkerchiefs as they crowd in? Fleeing a city to fly across a continent and arrive unannounced on the doorstep of a remote First Nation? Really? My favorite so far is the individual who drank toxic fish-tank cleaner because it contains a chemical that a certain President with huge ego but little grasp of complexities had announced as having “tremendous promise” as a “game changer” medicine. If pangolins could only know, they might take quiet satisfaction at such humans removing themselves from the gene pool.

Really, it’s not that complicated – we learned the recommended strategies at our mother’s knee. Wash your hands and face, respect other people’s space, stay home if you’re sick, and don’t sneeze or cough toward other people. Either we grow up or Mother Nature will keep spanking us with the inexorable laws of evolution. As I observed in Pakistan, the human species is certainly clever, but whether it survives long enough to count as “intelligent life” remains to be seen.

Pangolin pictures: World Wildlife Fund and BBC