Traditional Chinese medicine holds that the scales of a pangolin, a small ant-eating mammal, are "cool" and "salty." Eating those scales, the TCM thinking goes, may help expel wind, reduce swelling and boost lactation. But pangolin scales also seem to induce something far less beneficial: rapacity.
A recent report from the International Union for Conservation of Nature, or IUCN, warns that the pangolin is "literally being eaten out of existence." Demand not just for scales but also for pangolin meat in East and Southeast Asia has produced a thriving illegal pangolin market.
All eight species of pangolin are threatened by extinction, with two critically endangered. And unlike many other endangered species, whose relatively small habitats are threatened by urbanization, pangolin can be found over a wide swath of the planet: practically all of South and Southeast Asia and much of sub-Saharan Africa.
So why the sudden rapacious appetite for pangolin?
Dan Challender, who co-chairs IUCN's Pangolin Specialist Group, says that in recent years "the dynamic of [pangolin] consumption has changed." Once a supplemental protein source for people in rural villages, it has become a luxury food for newly rich urbanites, prized precisely because it must be caught in the wild. "In Vietnam and China," Challender says, "wild meat is considered very good. It's treated differently from farmed meat. ... It's a natural product. There's an attachment to it."
This distinguishes pangolin from shark fin, for instance — a traditional luxury food that became more widely consumed as more people could afford luxuries. Pangolin consumption seems driven by both urban nostalgie de la boue (the same thing that makes it impossible to swing a handmade banjo in Brooklyn without hitting a farm-to-table restaurant), and by its rarity.
IUCN has come up with an admirably broad plan to halt pangolins' slide into extinction by trying to stem both supply and demand. The former is well-intentioned and politically necessary, but may be a waste of time. China and Vietnam are already signatories to CITES, an international treaty that on paper (and apparently only on paper) prohibits trade in endangered species. That has not stopped the trade in tigers, rhinos, or, for that matter, pangolins.
The action is on the demand side, which is much trickier: Getting governments to sign a popular treaty is easy; changing the behavior of millions of status-conscious consumers is much harder. But it's not impossible.
An anti-shark-fin campaign run by WWF's Hong Kong chapter names corporations that refuse to serve shark-fin soup at their events and also lists caterers who provide fin-free banquets. WWF-HK claims that the volume of shark fin imported into Hong Kong declined by nearly 35 percent from 2012 to 2013. China began a three-year phase-out of shark fin at its state banquets; it too has avowed a dramatic drop in shark-fin sales.
Pangolins are often consumed as business deals are made. Challender suggests that one promising approach would be to get a large corporation to forswear wild-meat consumption during contract signings. The IUCN also calls for digital-media campaigns, engaging foundations in pangolin-conservation and engaging "the arts community to promote the plight of pangolins."
Let me offer a poem: "That's a pangolin/Don't stuff it in/Your mouth."
Jon Fasman is The Economist's Southeast Asia bureau chief. He also writes about food for Intelligent Life, and is the author of two novels: The Geographer's Library and The Unpossessed City.