How love for an endangered animal inspired a new wave of coronavirus racism

Dr. Jonathan Kolby

Last week, rumors began circulating that endangered pangolins — also known as scaly anteaters — might have been the intermediate host that allowed the deadly new coronavirus disease COVID-19 to spread from bats to humans, based on unpublished research findings announced in a Chinese university press release. Although evidence was not provided, I witnessed a flood of social media posts celebrating the “revenge” of pangolins because Chinese traditional remedies can include pangolin body parts. As much as I love pangolins and don’t want to see them driven to extinction by the illegal wildlife trade, I am concerned to see environmentalism and conservationism building on racist narratives. It’s a culturally sensitive problem that extends further than this current coronavirus crisis, and it needs to stop.

None of this context excuses or condones China’s wildlife exploitation. But hopefully it puts the controversy in perspective. It’s easy to blame other people for damaging biodiversity when they’re doing things you don’t understand or accept. It’s much harder to take responsibility for the damage each one of us causes every day through the foods we choose to eat, the ways that we travel, and the level of creature comforts we each believe we deserve.

In China, over 40,000 people have tested positive for infection with COVID-19 and more than 1,000 people have already died. Only time will tell whether this outbreak evolves into a pandemic. But already, coronavirus-associated discrimination against people of Asian descent is rattling communities around the globe. We need to be more thoughtful in the ways anger and frustration are expressed during stressful times.

Native to Asia and Sub-Saharan Africa, pangolins are one of the most highly poached mammals in the world, and the illegal smuggling of their scales is threatening them with extinction. Eight species of pangolins exist today — four in Africa and four in Asia — and all are listed in Appendix I of CITES (the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora), an international treaty designed to protect plants and animals from illegal and unsustainable trade. International trade for primarily commercial purposes is essentially prohibited for CITES Appendix–I listed species.

Pangolin scales are smuggled into China to circumvent this prohibition, dried and crushed into a powder, and then ingested. Similar to rhinoceros horns and human fingernails, pangolin scales are made of keratin. And while some claim they can treat everything from rheumatoid arthritis to inflammation, consuming pangolin scales has not been proven to offer any clinical medical benefit to humans.

As a former CITES policy specialist with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service with 10 years of experience combatting illegal wildlife trade, I sympathize with the overwhelming public and governmental frustration that pangolins continue to be poached despite the highest level of CITES protection. Organized crime is frequently involved, and just last week it was announced that 9,500 Kg (around 10.5 tons) of pangolin scales were seized from ocean shipping containers in Nigeria, likely destined for export to Asia. That many scales likely represents over 20,000 animals taken from the wild. Enormous illegal shipments like these are becoming more common, and if something doesn’t radically change soon, pangolins will become extinct in our lifetimes.

We absolutely must strengthen the enforcement of existing conservation laws, but we must also acknowledge our own hypocrisy. In addition to the aforementioned social media posts of “pangolin revenge,” there has also been a flurry of posts expressing disgust about Chinese cultural culinary traditions, such as the consumption of bats, snakes, cats and dogs.

Here in the U.S., most people seem to believe that it’s perfectly acceptable to slaughter and eat cows, but it’s considered taboo for people to eat horses, which are considered to be more noble and companionable. And yet, the U.S. has been exporting tens of thousands of live horses annually to slaughterhouses in Canada and Mexico for human and animal consumption overseas. Even though we’ve been supplying horses for people to eat elsewhere, we continue to publicly shame this culinary practice in the U.S. Adjusting our standards of morally acceptable behaviors based on economic profit is elitist hypocrisy.

Similarly, the consumption of dog and cat meat in China elicits outcry in the U.S. It’s not hard to understand why, of course — it’s difficult to think about eating animals that are often pets. But in parts of China where these animals are consumed, they are not viewed as companion animals, and residents consider their treatment to be humane and assert that the cultural practice is hardly different than the U.S. choosing to consume pork and beef. Factory farming in the U.S. is often accused of being inhumane, yet we seem to tolerate a higher threshold of animal neglect when it offers enough profit and accommodates our own food preferences.

In India, the slaughter of cows is banned in most states, as cows are considered to be supremely sacred. Penalties for disobeying the bans can be severe. And in many Jewish and Muslim communities around the world, people are strictly forbidden from eating pork, which is considered to be unclean. Regardless, the U.S. consumes beef and pork with abandon, and without considering the beliefs and opinions of other nations.

There are many, many reasons to decrease our meat consumption, both in the U.S. and around the world. Animal cruelty is certainly a compelling reason, as is the potential benefits to our individual health and the health of our planet. My point is merely that too many Western environmentalists have fallen into a lazy pattern when it comes to other cultures that both avoids internal introspection and can inadvertently enable xenophobia.

Increased contact with animals through land use change and wildlife trade is the most common way emerging infectious diseases make the jump to humans, and this latest coronavirus outbreak is no exception. It’s likely that bats or other traded species were involved in its spread to humans, and this has placed renewed international scrutiny on control of the thriving wildlife markets in China.

But like China, the U.S. is also a large importer of global wildlife — including wildlife with diseases. We just don’t hear about it when the consequences aren’t deemed important i.e. directly harmful to humans. For example, amphibian chytrid fungus (Batrachochytrium dendrobatidis), a deadly pathogen spread through the wildlife trade which has already harmed over 500 species globally, is causing more disease-driven extinctions than any other pathogen in recorded history. And yet the U.S. continues to import thousands of infected animals annually, without any disease screening or biosecurity measures to protect American frogs and salamanders from extinction.

Fortunately, many wildlife species capable of transmitting diseases to humans have long ago been banned by the Centers for Disease Control and Protection, and those that may threaten species of agricultural importance are strictly regulated by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. This regulatory framework is effective at protecting human health and food security in the U.S. from emerging infectious pathogens, but native species remain highly vulnerable to the novel diseases being imported through our wildlife trade.

Environmentalism and conservationism are noble and vital pursuits. But dialogues about coronavirus should not allow the topic of wildlife conservation to provide a smokescreen for prejudice. It’s OK to become angry that pangolins are going extinct; we should use this energy constructively to learn more about the issue and possibly support conservation efforts. With global teamwork we can prevail against both the emerging coronavirus pandemic and the illegal wildlife trade.

Throwing stones from glass houses will only make achieving this goal that much more difficult.