○ In the past couple of weeks, two people became infamous online for posting photos of themselves eating pangolin meat. The public flooded their accounts with insults and the pair were soon detained by the police
○ In China, pangolins are extremely endangered. They are a second-class protected animal in the country, but are still being killed on a huge scale for food and medicine, because of traditional beliefs
○ A vast black market for pangolins exists between China and neighboring countries, and fighting the trade requires more cooperative efforts from multiple departments
A pangolin climbs out of a cage upon its release into the wild on April 27, 2015 in Sibolangit, North Sumatra, Indonesia. Photo: IC
Customs officers in Jiangmen, South China's Guangdong Province, inspect seized pangolin carcasses. Officers said they intercepted a fishing boat on September 14, 2015 and found 2,674 pangolin carcasses concealed in 414 cooler boxes. Photo: CFP
In recent weeks, two overnight "celebrities" have become popular topics on Sina Weibo, the "pangolin prince" and the "pangolin princess."
The Weibo posts of the "pangolin princess" were full of bragging about different types of wild animals she dined upon, mostly pangolin. She has posted pictures of a brownish mixture and wrote, "The first time I had pangolin fried rice, tastes rather special."
Another post said, "A soup that took five hours to brew, with eight types of animals, pangolin, snake, swan … I drank two bowls while praying for these animals. But they must be very nourishing, because I just had a nosebleed." The photos showed some scaly, chopped meat at the bottom of a pot. Local police investigated after receiving calls from netizens who read her posts.
Many other netizens left angry comments, calling the woman ignorant for eating the protected animal. Soon afterwards, police detained her on suspicion of breaking the law.
Another incident at the beginning of February also aroused public anger. A man posted photos on Weibo, claiming he ate pangolin with local government officials while on a research trip to Southwest China's Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region and that he "fell in love with this wild animal food." He was then called the "pangolin prince" by netizens, and police soon detained him as well.
However, such practices are quite common in China. There's a vast black market for pangolin meat and scales, with live animals mostly smuggled into China from Southeast Asia.
A pangolin carries its baby at a zoo in Bali, Indonesia on June 19, 2014. Photo: IC
A trade rooted in tradition
According to TRAFFIC, a wildlife trade monitoring network, the pangolin is a national second-class protected species under China's Wild Animal Protection Law. According to Article 22 of the 1988 law, selling and purchasing protected wild animals and their products is prohibited. However, if they are used for the purposes of scientific research, captive breeding, exhibition and other special cases, such as Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM), the sale, purchase and use of second-class protected animals and their products is allowed if it is approved by provincial wildlife management departments. Eating them is always illegal.
But because of a traditional taste for the rare beasts, more than 300,000 pangolins are consumed annually in China, 95 percent of which are smuggled from abroad, according to a TRAFFIC report.
The trade is deeply rooted in the traditional Chinese belief that consuming pangolin both as food and as medicine is good for one's health and status. In TCM, their scales are believed to promote blood circulation, and eating their meat is seen as a luxury that shows off one's social status.
After seeing all of the pangolin-eating reports, netizens flooded the Internet. Ning Zhijie (pseudonym) immediately bought train tickets. On February 8, he set off from Central China's Henan Province on a secret investigation to Guangxi, which has the country's largest pangolin black market. Ning is a volunteer at the China Biodiversity Conservation and Green Development Foundation.
As soon as he stepped off the plane, he started looking for insiders. At first, he talked to a driver who said he can take Ning to a pangolin restaurant, but on the second day the driver said the restaurant was feeling suspicious of strangers because "the times are rough," Ning told the Beijing News.
A few days later, an illegal taxi driver gave Ning a lead. He led him to a narrow valley and into a small shop. The taxi driver then started talking to the shop owner, who finally agreed to sell Ning some pangolin meat, priced at 1,000 yuan ($145) per kilogram, or a live animal for 1,300 yuan per kilogram.
About half an hour later, the owner came out of an adjacent alley with a box. After going inside, she checked Ning's ID and train ticket, and not finding anything suspicious, she opened the box to reveal a curled-up and nearly stationary pangolin.
Soon, Ning headed to a local police station to make a report. He contacted the shop owner and arranged a time the next day for a pick-up and took the police to detain all these people. Unfortunately, because the pangolin was fed cement to increase its weight, it died soon after being rescued.
This kind of back-alley dealing is common. According to the Nanguo Morning Post, a newspaper based in Nanning, Guangxi, many restaurants serve pangolin meat in secret, with their consumers ordering in code.
One of the newspaper's reporters went to one such restaurant in Nanning and asked whether they have pangolin, to which the waiter said no.
Then, another customer told the reporter he needs to use the right words, otherwise he can never get pangolin meat. He was told that if he used the phrase "worm grass," the restaurant would serve it immediately.
"The restaurant has been here for years and has quite a high rating among its followers," the customer told the Nanguo Morning Post. "A few years ago, when the government wasn't cracking down on eating with public money, the restaurant was full every day."
The customer also recommended a "delicious combo" - eagle and cobra soup, stir-fried muntjac deer, boar meat, stewed bamboo rat, some beef and whole-wheat bread, "all for 2,000 yuan."
The restaurant was an open secret in the city, with many saying "there's nothing you can't eat there." After the authorities inspected it once a few years ago, it simply became more discreet and found a new hideout for its illegal meat.
A customs officer in Yiwu, East China's Zhejiang Province, weighs pangolin scales confiscated from smugglers on February 21. Photo: CFP
International black market chain