The pangolin, or scaly ant-eater (chuan shan jia 穿山甲), is an extraordinary creature. Plated in armour-like scales, it looks like a pine cone (or a stylised carp – if you just look at the scales – which is why one of its Chinese names is ling li 鲮鲤). Unfortunately, it’s now being eaten to extinction – and you can guess who is to blame. Yes, it’s the Chinese, along with the Vietnamese. Their relentless appetite not only for the flesh of the pangolin, but for its scales, a traditional medicine, is driving an illegal trade in pangolins from Africa and Asia. According to the newly-updated IUCN List of Threatened Species, the pangolin is now the most illegally-traded mammal in the world, and all eight pangolin species are threatened with extinction.
A few thoughts on this:
1. I believe eating pangolins is mainly a southern, Cantonese habit. A Chinese friend told me today that she’d been offered it at a banquet hosted by rich acquaintances in Shenzhen (she refused). Personally, I’ve never come across pangolins in Chinese kitchens or on Chinese dinner tables, although I’ve met chefs who have cooked them. One culinary encyclopaedia I checked says the meat is tough and coarse, but can be casseroled, stewed or stir-fried.
2. The vast majority of Chinese people will never come across pangolins. Rare creatures like these are extraordinarily expensive, and tend to be eaten secretly, in the private rooms of exclusive restaurants. The problem is that the number of rich people who want to eat them, and can afford to do so, has risen rapidly since China’s economic development really kicked off in the early 1990s, with catastrophic results for pangolins and other edible wild creatures worldwide. Serving a rare creature for dinner can have some of the same social cachet as cracking open a bottle of fine vintage wine in London, and creatures regarded as medicinal tonics are particularly prized. There is a lucrative illicit trade in protected species, and certain chefs know how to obtain them, with a bit of notice, when a guest puts in a particular order. Cooking and serving them can be hugely profitable for restaurants – there’s a big mark-up, as there is with wine in restaurants in Europe.
3. Campaigning against pangolin-eating is more complicated than campaigning against shark’s fin-eating. It’s relatively easy to shame big hotel chains and companies such as Disneyland into taking shark’s fin off their menus, because it is legal and openly eaten. With illegally-traded delicacies such as pangolin, no one is eating them openly anyway – it’s all underground.
4. Chinese people tend to dislike sanctimonious Westerners telling them what to do, particularly on environmental issues, where they can argue quite reasonably that the West is just as bad, if not worse, than China. And although deliberately eating endangered creatures may be a (minority) Chinese habit, we are driving all kinds of creatures towards extinction by our broader behaviour – look at the polar bear, whose habitat is being destroyed by climate change, for just one example.
5. On the other hand, Chinese people, especially younger ones, can be sensitive to their international image. In particular, the Chinese do not want anyone to think they are ‘backward’: ‘backward’ (luo hou 落后) is a terribly pejorative term in Chinese. It’s interesting that there seems to be a groundswell of opinion against eating dog meat, which has a long history in China and which is not (in my opinion) necessarily worse than eating pigs, mainly because of the Western view that eating ‘man’s best friend’ is barbaric. Could a campaign about the barbarism and ‘backwardness’ of eating endangered species ultimately dent their appeal for socially aspirational Chinese nouveaux riches?
You can hear me taking part in a discussion about the pangolin issue on today’s podcast of World Update, BBC World Service Radio – link here.