By Mona Sabalones Gonzalez
The pangolins are very sweet. The eyes of the pangolin are very expressive. They can show love and fear. The pangolins and their caretakers … walk together. ~Lisa Hywood, Tikki Hywood Foundation
He flops on his side like a toddler about to throw a tantrum. He curls his body around the boot of the caretaker, who bends down and gently tries to peel him off, but Tamuda […the pangolin] wants attention. ~Rachael Bale, National Geographic
Only now, with, (as of this writing), the spread of Covid-19, much is being learned about the pangolin on a mass scale, which is ironic. After all, from the decade 2006 to 2016, some 1,000,000 pangolins had been sold in the illegal wildlife trade. It is the most widely traded wildlife animal in the world, exceeding that of the elephant, rhinoceros, and leopard combined. It had been said that the pangolin may become extinct before most people in the world know that it had long been in existence.
The pangolin is a slow-moving, gentle creature. When it walks standing on its back feet, forefeet clasped demurely together, it reminds one of a tiny dinosaur. Workers from wildlife rehabilitation centers say pangolins are quirky, amusing, and strange. Their tongues are longer than their bodies. At rest, their tongues extend from their stomachs to their mouths. When they’re happy, they stick out their tongues. They also stick their tongues out when they’ve discovered an anthill or the hiding places of termites and other insects — which are their primary diet. When they taste something that’s distasteful, they curl their long tongues and in this way, squeeze the distaste out. If so inclined, a pangolin may lie on its back so that you can rub its stomach.
Normally they walk on all fours, but for speed, they walk on their two rear feet. They can run up to 5 km/hour. They claw their way up trees and dig into them, inserting their long, sticky tongues to eat termites and ants. Other types of pangolins (there are four types in Asia, and four in Africa), claw in the ground in search of food. They have their own taxonomic family but are remotely analogous to dogs and bears. They are the only mammals in the world with real scales. They like to roll in mud puddles.
Honey Bun was the child of an abused pangolin. The mother pangolin curled into a ball, protecting Honey Bun in the middle. However, the mother was kicked around and so traumatized that Honey Bun escaped. She was rescued and cared for by conservationist Maria Diekmann, Founder of the Rare & Endangered Species Trust, Namibia.
Diekmann soon learned that baby pangolins need attention 24/7, plus years of commitment moving forward. While sleeping in her apartment, Honey Bun uses her weight to topple sacks of food, a small round side table, and a basket of laundry. Plus, she knows how to open the refrigerator.
If a pangolin pees on itself, it will rub itself on the sand to clean and freshen up. This may also be a way for them to control parasites. Their scales can attract dirt and ants, especially after a meal.
As of this writing, we are dealing with the Covid-19 pandemic. Globally there are areas where people are being kept indoors. In the Philippines, schools have been put on halt as well as TV shows, newspapers, stores, malls, restaurants, et. al. Supermarkets, however, remain open as well as drug stores and hospitals. Only one person per home can go outside.
Enter the Bat
The study, Global Epidemiology of Bat Coronaviruses by Antonio C. P. Wong, Xin Li, Susanna K. P. Lau, and Patrick C. Y. Woo, is featured on the website of the US National Library of Medicine, National Institutes of Health. The authors noted that (paraphrased): “Bats are highly diversified. (They are) mammals with the second largest number of species.” This diversity allows them to be potential hosts of a huge variety of viruses.
Covid-19 was first reported to the WHO on December 31, 2019 by Chinese Health officials. The pneumonia resulting from Covid-19 affected 41 patients, mostly linked with the Huanan Seafood Wholesale Market which they say originated in a wet market in Wuhan, China. The disease is said to originate from bats and was spread to people through an intermediary animal such as the pangolin, pigs, or civets. Once it reached people, it could be passed on from human to human within six feet of each other through respiratory droplets. On surfaces, it can survive for days.
Bats are ideal hosts for these viruses. First, because bats have a very strong immune system. Second, once the virus strikes, the bats release interferon. This protects the bats and strengthens the virus.
Bats are capable of sustained, uninterrupted flight, allowing them to leave their droppings at any time from one point of flight to the next. If a bat dropping has landed near an anthill, the pangolin may eat the bat dropping along with the ants. If bat dropping lands on trees, there are tree pangolins that may accidentally get it. Bat droppings can also land where they roost, whether it’s a cave or in your attic or your wall. All this enables the spread of their virus. However, these viruses cannot pass on directly from bats to people. An intermediary animal is needed.
Bats need a secondary animal to pass the virus to humans because the virus, when it is on the bat, lacks the necessary structure to latch onto human cells. Through an intermediary animal, the virus changes and passage to humans become possible. Once a human has the Covid-19 virus, it can be spread from human to human via respiratory droplets within six feet of each other. On surfaces, Covid-19 can remain for days.
Diseases from Bats
Consider other diseases that originated in bats such as the 2002 SARS virus that broke out in Guangdong, China; the 2012 MERS (Middle East Respiratory Syndrome) which a World Health Organization fact sheet suggests may have originated in bats and passed onto camels; porcine epidemic diarrhea (PED) which passed from bats to pigs; severe acute diarrhea syndrome (SARS), and Marburg marburgvirus are also believed to have originated in bats, according to the study, Bats and Coronaviruses, published in The National Center for Biotechnology Information (NCBI) website.
Arnaud Fontanet, of France’s Pasteur Institute, says it is impossible for the virus to have reached man directly from bats, noting several studies that revealed that in its bat virus form, the virus is incapable of attaching itself to human cells. Fontanet told AFP, “We think there’s another animal that’s an intermediary”. The intermediary carrier will have to be wildlife that has close contact with people.
Shen Yongyi and Xiao Lihua of the South China Agricultural University in Guangzhou, China, blamed pangolins as the likely intermediary animal source of Covid-19, based on a genetic analysis where the pangolin strain of Covid-19 was 99% similar to human Covid-19. However, the study was not published, and therefore has never undergone international scrutiny.
Edward Holmes, evolutionary virologist, University of Sydney, Australia, said “It does make sense” but he adds that more detail is needed. James Wood, head of the Department of Veterinary Medicine, University of Cambridge agrees that the study, though extremely important, doesn’t qualify as scientific evidence. “Results must be published for international scrutiny”, he said.
Enter the Pangolin
If indeed the pangolin is the animal that carried Covid-19 to humans, we must first know how the pangolin got it from the bat. Two ways are cited. One possible way is through the bat’s droppings, which could go anywhere in the forest. It could fall on an ant hole on a tree. The solitary tree pangolins would then eat their ants, even if a dropping has fallen on their food source. If the droppings fell on the forest ground, also upon a termite or anthill, the ground pangolins would probably eat these droppings as well. Either way, the pangolins become carriers of the virus.
China’s Wildlife Farms
There is a third way the pangolins become carriers. It is through China’s wildlife industry. Michael Standaert of The Guardian reported some 20,000 wildlife farms that raise wildlife species such as bats, boars, civet cats, ostriches, pangolins, porcupines, peacocks, and wild geese, to name a few.
Before the Covid-19 outbreak, wildlife farming and trade was recognized and breeding was promoted by the Chinese government because of its impact on the country’s GNP. It also made small-time farmers in China very rich. After Covid-19 it was rendered illegal but it still thrives.
China, which has the highest population of any country in the world, is also the No. 1 market for pangolins. Its meat is considered a delicacy and it is eaten to show one’s elite position in society.
Its scales are powdered down and used to make a paste that Traditional Chinese Medicine believe can cure arthritis, cancer, convulsion, stomach disorders, epilepsy, menstrual pain, and wounds. However, there is no scientific basis to prove this is true. In fact, the scales are made of keratin, which is also present in human nails and hair.
Pangolin paste is also used for spiritual protection, especially protection from witchcraft. It also is used in financial rituals to raise one’s wealth. Baby pangolins are served in soup and men eat them believing it will promote virility. New mothers, on the other hand, believe the paste can stimulate lactation, ensuring milk for their babies. The pangolin’s bones and head are also used for spiritual protection.
Scientists at South China Agricultural University found that the genome sequences of viruses in pangolins is 99% identical to Covid 19 in humans, the official Xinhua news agency reported. But to repeat, the study has yet to be published and vetted.
An Unfolding Story
In the meantime, it’s about time we preserved the pangolin. If there were no pangolins, the quality of soil will go down, and crops may not grow. There will be an overpopulation of ants, termites, and other insects.
In sum, this is a still-unfolding story. But you tend to think there must be a reason why some animals are meant to be wild. This virus shows that when we interfere with animals, their lives in the wild, and their natural animal habitats, it can kill us. For me, if you want a pet, get a dog or a cat as they thrive in the care of humans and the good fortune goes both ways.