The pangolin has become something of a poster child for endangered wildlife. Of the eight species of pangolin (four native to Asia and four to Africa), all are now threatened with extinction due to overexploitation, despite the existence of an international commercial trade ban. Hunted both for their meat and their scales, which are used in traditional Chinese medicine, the demand for these small mammals has proved devastating.
Potential solutions vary, but every option has pitfalls. International trade bans have been shown to actually increase demand for some species – a good example being the black rhino, populations of which fell from an estimated 65,000 to 2,400 following the international trading ban of 1977. So is the best alternative to clamp down on the perpetrators, step-up monitoring, or focus resources on reducing demand? Or, is there another option? Could rare species be farmed?
Farming is attracting increasing amounts of attention as a conservation method; studies have already examined the conservation impact of porcupine farms in Vietnam and bear farms in China. One 2003 study pointed to the success of crocodilian farming in reducing the poaching of wild crocodilians for their skins.
A new study into the feasibility of farming however places doubt on the strategy where pangolins are concerned. Utilising a framework specially developed for this kind of analysis by Jacob Phelps, an environmental scientist at Lancaster University, a group of international researchers examined the 17 conditions which Phelps argues need to be met in order for supply-side interventions to displace wild collection. Conditions include the fact that markets must be developed enough that producers can reach customers; farmed specimens must be able to be produced at scale; they must cheaper or the same price as wild alternatives and must offer comparable profit margins.
The researchers conclude that pangolins only meet six of the conditions and, as a result, that it is ‘very unlikely that farming will displace wild collection in the near future’. Chief among pangolins’ undesirability for farming is the fact that they are unsuited to breeding on a commercial scale (formulating artificial diets is challenging and costly and pangolins are highly susceptible to stress-induced immune conditions). In addition, the available evidence suggests that even with farms in place, it would still be cheaper to acquire wild pangolins, and that farming would be unprofitable without subsidies.
The complexity of the situation is why Phelps thinks a detailed framework is necessary when considering such interventions, even well they are well-intentioned. ‘These are really complex multi-variant situations,’ he says. ‘There's a lot that could go wrong between the intervention and the desired effect. The framework helps to structure that a little bit.’
There are other considerations too. Flooding the market with farmed animals will not necessarily reduce demand for the wild alternative. According to Rebecca Drury, head of wildlife trade at Fauna & Flora International, it’s important not to underestimate the power of the prestige bound up with acquiring the ‘real’ thing.
‘Access to products from rare wild animals is very effective at demonstrating status and wealth, and may be used to build social networks and smooth business transactions,’ she says. ‘Whereas access to a farmed or synthetic “substitute” is not. For many wildlife products, including pangolin meat, farmed alternatives do not have the same symbolic or medicinal value as the genuine article. Medicine from wild animals that must fight for survival and eat a natural diet are considered safer and much more effective in restoring and maintaining vital energy or chi – and, in turn, good health. In a context in which consumers want the real thing, and can buy from trusted sources to ensure they get it, wildlife farming will not reduce demand for wild-sourced animals.’
This question of consumer preference is also included within Phelp’s framework and the authors of the pangolin study came to a similar conclusion. While they note that little research has been carried out as regards consumer preference for wild pangolins, the study states that ‘a preference for wild pangolin meat in Asia has been reported’ and that, more generally, research suggests a preference for wild over alternative medical materials in China.
The latter is an issue which could apply to several other conservation initiatives which aim to displace the trade of wild animal parts. In a recent and well-publicised study regarding rhinos, researchers at the University of Oxford claim to have created a ‘fake rhino’ horn from horse hair, bound together with regenerated silk. The fake is so effective, they believe it could be used to confuse the market and diminish demand. Similar efforts are also underway to develop synthetic elephant ivory, lion bones and pangolin scales. But whether these fakes would have the desired effect is less clear and many conservationists disagree with the approach.
In a statement released in 2015 specifically regarding synthetic rhino horn, the charity Save the Rhino concluded that it was ‘opposed to the development, marketing and sale of synthetic rhino horn’. Among many reasons, it stated that: ‘There is no evidence that selling synthetic/bio-fabricated horn would reduce the demand for rhino horn or dispel the myths around rhino horn and could indeed lead to more poaching because it increases demand for “the real thing”.’
Drury agrees and also foresees the risk of a market surge, should substitutes – be they synthetic products or farmed animals – be introduced. ‘Availability of an inferior but more accessible farmed “substitute” may well appeal to a new and larger market that cannot currently access the real thing,’ she warns. ‘As such, wildlife farming may be economically viable, though it will not necessarily reduce pressure on wild populations.’