Scaly Anteaters: Did They Cause the Pandemic?

Scaly anteaters, or pangolins, may have spread the coronavirus from bats to humans. Find out more about these unique, endangered mammals.

I was a latch key kid growing up, and part of my misspent youth involved watching the after-school cartoons. One of my favourites was The New Pink Panther Show.

The show featured the Pink Panther, of course, as well as his United Artists peer the Inspector. It also included a cartoon series called The Ant and the Aardvark.

The ant’s name was Charlie, and he sounded a lot like Dean Martin. The Aardvark didn’t seem to have a name, but he sounded like comedian Jackie Mason. The voice actor was comedian John Byner.

Cartoon Series Called The Ant and the Aardvark

I don’t know what kind of Aardvark the character was supposed to be, but he was blue. Sometimes he referred to himself as an anteater.

That’s about as close as I’ve ever gotten to an anteater. The reason I mention all this is that we have another world-famous anteater capturing our attention these days.

Some people call it the scaly anteater, while others use its Malayan name, the pangolin. They are similar to armadillos, anteaters and sloths, although they have a slightly different taxonomy.

Scaly Anteaters are Unique Among Mammals

Scaly anteaters are unique among mammals because, as their name implies, they have scales instead of fur. The scales consist of keratin, the same material that makes up our fingernails.

They wander around at night in Asia and Africa, catching ants and termites with their long tongue. They’re solitary animals who only get together to mate.

Females can have up to three pups at a time. It takes about two years to raise their young, after which they wander off to live out their own solitary ant-eating lives.

Endangered By Habitat Destruction and Poaching

Scaly anteaters are an endangered species because of the pervasive problem of habitat destruction. They like to live in hollow trees, and deforestation has decimated their population along with most other forest creatures. 

The illegal wildlife trade is an even greater threat. Pangolins are the most trafficked mammals in the world, according to the International Union for Conservation of Nature.

The reason readers outside Asia haven’t heard much about any of this is that trafficking is part of traditional Chinese medicine. Practitioners claim that their unusual scales can remedy poor circulation, anxiety in children, malaria, deafness and just about anything else practitioners can dream up.

Some Chinese People Consider Their Meat a Delicacy

Some Chinese people also consider their meat to be a delicacy, even though eating them is against the law there. With a sharp eye, you can sometimes spot a contraband pangolin in Asian wildlife markets.

As a result, around 100,00 scaly anteaters a year end up in black markets in countries like China and Vietnam. That represents a million pangolins killed over the last decade. Trade in pangolins is illegal under international law based on the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES), but neither national nor international law seem to matter to poachers.

The scaly anteater, or pangolin, has fallen into disrepute during the COVID-19 pandemic. There is widespread speculation that the novel coronavirus passed from bats through pangolins and on to humans.

Speculation that virus Passed Via Pangolins to Humans

Pangolins are scarce in China these days, so practitioners now smuggle them into the country illegally from Africa. The UN reports that governments in various countries seized 148,000 scaly anteaters in 2018, confirming that they’re the most trafficked mammals in Asia.

 They know that’s only the tip of the iceberg. It’s also ten times the number seized in 2014, which suggests that the illicit trade is some kind of trendy fad.

For some bizarre reason, it’s illegal to eat pangolins in China, but not to use their scales in traditional medicine and folk concoctions. The government supplies pangolin scales to the 700 hospitals permitted to prescribe them.

Smugglers Take Advantage of Medicinal Loophole

Smugglers take advantage of the medicinal loophole to cover their tracks in the same way cannabis dealers take advantage of medicinal marijuana laws in other jurisdictions. It’s also legal to farm pangolins in China.

That’s also a ruse because scaly anteaters don’t breed well in captivity. Of course, there’s no way that Chinese authorities can tell a smuggled pangolin from a domestic pangolin if you get my drift.

Some scientists are speculating that the coronavirus spread from bats via a pangolin. They believe that it ended up in the notorious seafood market, where it found its way into humans.

99% Similarity Between Viruses From Pangolins and Humans

Back in February, the journal Nature reported on an unpublished study from the South China Agricultural University in Guangzhou. They found a 99% similarity between genome samples of coronaviruses from scaly anteaters and virus samples from humans with COVID-19.

However, this is far from settled. For one thing, the first identified patient in China was an elderly, housebound man. He had no connection to the seafood market where this hypothetical pangolin is supposed to have been.

There’s also no record of anyone selling scaly anteaters in the seafood market. Of course, smugglers aren’t known for their meticulous record-keeping, either.

Not Clear Virus Started In Seafood Market 

Another twist is that it’s still not clear that the virus started in the seafood market. According to the Lancet, out of a sample of 41 initial COVID-19 patients, 27 had been to the market, but 14 had not.

Traces of genetic material belonging to the COVID-19 virus have turned up at the market. However, as Dr. Daniel Lucey, an infectious disease specialist at Georgetown University, told Science Magazine, ”The virus came into that marketplace before it came out of that marketplace.” So it’s unclear what those traces indicate.

“Virus Did Not Come Directly From Pangolins” 

A later research study in the Journal of Medical Virology states, “we concluded that the human SARS‐CoV‐2 virus, which is responsible for the recent outbreak of COVID‐19, did not come directly from pangolins.”

The team, led by Dr. Li Xingguang of the Wuhan University of Bioengineering, looked at the genome of the novel coronavirus. Samples of viruses taken from two pangolins didn’t match five chains of amino acids in the coronavirus that causes COVID-19.

The Journal of Medical Virology is a reputable, peer-reviewed publication. Even so, some observers insist on taking this study with a grain of salt. It comes from Wuhan, China, the city that lied to the world to cover up the early signs of the outbreak.

If People Believe Pangolins Carry Disease, They’ll Shy Away

Although all this speculation gives pangolins a bad name, it might be in their best interest in the long run. If people come to believe that scaly anteaters carry disease, they’ll probably shy away from eating them or using them as a folk remedy.

That would dry up the market for them, and poachers would leave them in peace. As the Japan Times reports, China has imposed a temporary, outright ban on the trade and consumption of wild animals to ensure that pangolins and other species are protected.

The same report goes on to say that the ban is unlikely to succeed in its current form. In a happy coincidence, the Chinese government plans to update its Wildlife Law later this year.

Even More Severe Penalties on Trading in Wild Animals

The Japan Times sees this as an opportunity for two conservation efforts. They recommend that the new law distinguish between wild and captive animals, imposing even more severe penalties on those who trade in animals taken from the wild.

Secondly, they appeal to the Chinese government to update its protected species list. They propose that the new law should make trading in any species protected under national law illegal and also clean up the wet markets across China.

Part of this issue seems to stem from the old tendency of generals to fight the last war instead of the current one. We know that SARS originated in a wet market, and that seems to colour people’s judgement about COVID-19.

“Hint About the Evolution of This Thing and How It Jumped”

Professor Stephen Turner of Monash University in Melbourne told the Guardian, “We’ve found the ancestors of the virus, but having broader knowledge of the coronavirus in other species might give us a hint about the evolution of this thing and how it jumped.”

Knowing that would allow the world to come up with steps to prevent another outbreak like this one from happening again. The potential certainly exists for an even worse pandemic in the not-too-distant future.

We always have more to learn if we dare to know.
Learn more:
How did coronavirus start and where did it come from? Was it really Wuhan’s animal market?
Covid-19 has put pangolins in the spotlight
Did pangolins spread the China coronavirus to people?
Significance of Pangolin Viruses in Human Pandemic Remains Murky
Can China end its wildlife trade?
The proximal origin of SARS-CoV-2
Evolutionary history, potential intermediate animal host, and cross‐species analyses of SARS‐CoV‐2
Mass Extinction Happening Again
COVID-19 Outbreak Exposes China’s Lies
Origin of COVID-19: Lies, Damned Lies and the Truth

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