Oh, Mary

Our Place in the World

November 9, 2020
Roger van Oosten

The family tree of mammals has some delightfully whimsical branches, oddities that defy logic, like the platypus. Pangolins are a mammalian oddity. They look like an anteater wearing Medieval armor with thick, protective scales. Though they are known to eat ants, they are not part of the anteater family. They are most closely related to armadillos.

There are not of a lot of pangolins in the world, and there are only eight species of pangolin. By comparison, there are a thousand species of shark and 38 species of cats. Pangolins are an endangered species. And their endangerment endangers us. 

Pangolins are the most heavily trafficked animals in the world and that is what is driving their extinction. The reason they are subject to poaching and illegal trade is that they are highly desired for ancient reasons and current fads. 

Pangolin scales are made of keratin. In fact, they are the only mammal in the world with keratin scales. These scales are used in traditional Chinese medicine, and in China and Vietnam the scales are believed to have great medicinal value. 

The meat of pangolins is considered a delicacy, particularly among hip, urban, and young Asians who seek out rare meats as a source of vitality. In Africa, they are eaten as bushmeat, which is much needed on a continent that often faces poverty and hunger. 

Pangolins have been driven to near extinction in Asia. But the demand for pangolins in that part of the world has fueled a massive illegal trade in pangolins from Africa. More than a million of the armored mammals have been moved between the two locations in the past decade. 

They are relatively easy to capture. Though they have sharp claws, they are not aggressive animals. Their main defense against other mammals is to roll into a ball, which perplexes other animals, but makes them an easy pick up for poachers. 

However, poaching and transporting exotic animals can have unintended consequences. The natural world is complex and unpredictable. Just when you think you have it all figured out, it rises up to kill you. Pangolins, it turns out, are not giving up their place on the planet without a fight. And these docile creatures may be having their revenge on the human race. 

Evolution, you see, gave pangolins the best immune systems in the mammal world. This means that pangolins can host viruses, but not be sickened or killed by them. And it just so happens the most common family of viruses that cycle in pangolins are, you guessed it, the family of coronaviruses. 

Science is still unlocking the full story of the COVID-19 virus. Not much is known about it. Because there is still much we don’t know about the virus, many people prone to seeing conspiracies believe it was created in a lab. It was not. The virus is made up of DNA and RNA very closely related to bats and our old friends, the pangolins. In fact, a virus very close to COVID-19 has turned up in in live African pangolins that were shipped to Asia. In Asia they were kept in holding pens not far from Wuhan, China, where the first cases of COVID-19 were identified. Moreover, many of the first people diagnosed with the virus had shopped at or visited a wet market in Wuhan where fresh pangolin meat was sold. 

Pangolins may not turn out to be the zoonotic trigger of the COVID-19 spillover to the human population. For now, they are suspects. Yet, they are not to blame for the pandemic that has killed more than one million people.

We are. The human branch of the mammal tree. The blame game starts with us. 

For a long time, centuries in fact, we considered ourselves the masters of the planet. Because we believed we had greater intelligence than any other living creature, we thought we could reshape the world however we wanted. 

For example, we have the ability to capture pangolins and fly them to Asia for dinner. But just because we can do a thing, doesn’t mean we should do a thing. The pangolin trade is not simply a matter of supply and demand where one side wants it, and is willing to pay heavily for it, and so the other side gets it for them. It’s part of a larger disrespect for the power of nature to rise up and kill us. 

Humans are unable to grasp big pictures. A country with a large rainforest may believe it is in their best interest to cut that forest down for farmland or to use as fuel. When you draw borders, you get those kinds of actions. When the world is without equity, self-interest outweighs global concern and ignores global threats. 

We fail time and again to grasp that every action has an equal and opposite reaction. And this gap in human understanding is constantly being exploited by the natural world. Warm the world by releasing carbons, seawater rises and shrinks coast lines. Build too close to a forest, or a volcano, and risk getting burned. Poach and traffic exotic animals, and release a pandemic.  

Think of it this way. Humans are a global infection and the natural world is fighting back. It’s ability to do so is impressive and deadly.

Maybe it’s too late for humans to think about changing philosophies from national to global. But we had better start trying. The best way to begin is to stop looking across borders and ideologies and seeing enemies. The natural world doesn’t make value judgements or recognize borders. It acts globally. It is decidedly, delightfully, and dangerously apolitical. 

Maybe it’s time we stop fighting nature and start learning from it.