Photograph by Brent Stirton, Getty/National Geographic
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Pangolins, which look like scaly anteaters, are coveted for use in traditional Chinese medicine.

Photograph by Brent Stirton, Getty/National Geographic

Pangolin scale medicines no longer covered by Chinese insurance

The change may signal new willingness from the government to provide additional protections to the threatened mammal.

Traditional medicines containing pangolin scales will no longer be covered by China’s state insurance funds, according to a government announcement. The scales of the imperiled mammal are used in more than 60 commercially produced curatives from more than 200 pharmaceutical companies, according to the nonprofit China Biodiversity and Green Development Foundation. They’re said to treat ailments from nursing mothers’ difficulty with lactation to poor circulation.

Demand for pangolin scales for use in traditional medicine threatens all eight species of pangolins with extinction.

The announcement, made on August 20 by the National Medical Insurance and the Human Resource and Social Security Bureau, also removes hawksbill sea turtle, sea horse, coral, and saiga antelope antlers, among other wildlife-derived products, from the list of drugs eligible for reimbursement by government-funded insurance. This list is updated every few years, adding and removing both Western and traditional drugs. It does not go into detail about what types of pangolin products, mentioning only pangolin “decoctions,” or infused liquids.

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In February, Hong Kong customs officers seized eight tons of pangolin scales from Nigeria, underscoring the massive scale of the illegal trade.

It’s not a total ban on the domestic trade in pangolin, which is what many advocates have been pushing for, but it could signal a significant change, both in the number of pangolins used and in the government’s approach to pangolin conservation, said Steve Given, the former associate dean of the American College of Traditional Chinese Medicine, in an email.

“In China, the nature of the political system is such that the state has a strong say as to what is OK and what should be avoided,” Given said. Not only is the government making it more expensive to use pangolin scales, because now people must pay for pangolin products out of pocket, but, Given said, “it is suggesting that the government no longer supports the use of pangolin.”

Daisy He, a Beijing-based lawyer with the international firm CMS, which follows changes in China’s insurance plans, says the species’ endangered status may have been a factor in the government’s decision. Pangolins are believed to be the most trafficked mammal in the world, with an estimated one million taken from the wild between 2000 and 2013, according to the wildlife trade monitoring organization Traffic. And as Asia’s four species of pangolins have become increasingly scarce, trafficking has shifted to the four species in Africa, where hundreds of thousands—possibly millions—are hunted each year.

“The Chinese government and the Chinese public have noticed the importance of protecting these animals,” He said in an email. Furthermore, she said, the drug reimbursement list should only include medicines that are necessary and reasonably priced. Pangolin drugs are neither.

International commercial trade in Asian pangolins was banned in 2000. For African species, it was 2017. China, meanwhile, has continued to permit sales of pangolins and pangolin scale products within its borders, insisting that the scales come from stockpiles amassed before the international trade bans went into effect. Chinese provinces collectively issue approvals for pharmaceutical companies to use 29 tons of the scales annually, which roughly represents 73,000 individual pangolins.

“While this [health insurance change] will not remove the cultural interest in pangolin, it will create an environment where more Chinese people will feel empowered to question its use,” Given said. He has identified at least 125 herbal, mineral, and animal alternatives to pangolin scales in the Chinese medicine pharmacopoeia, depending on what a patient needs to treat. “It will be interesting to see if this is [an] opening to more changes or a single event.”

China’s National Forestry and Grassland Administration has also indicated that it’s considering upgrading pangolins from Class II to Class I protected status under its wildlife protection law. That would mean the sale and use pangolins and pangolin products would be allowed only under certain circumstances, such as scientific research, and would require approval by the national government, the law says.

The change goes into effect January 1, 2020.

Wildlife Watch is an investigative reporting project between National Geographic Society and National Geographic Partners focusing on wildlife crime and exploitation. Read more Wildlife Watch stories here, and learn more about National Geographic Society’s nonprofit mission at nationalgeographic.org. Send tips, feedback, and story ideas to ngwildlife@natgeo.com.