Roasted pangolin scales sold in a hospital.

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Pangolins are the only mammals with scales, rather than fur, covering their bodies. Unfortunately, these scales are one of the main reasons why pangolins are heavily poached and trafficked at an international level. China is one of the main sources of demand for pangolin scale products because these products are frequently used in legal and illegal traditional Chinese medicine (TCM). Therefore, the TCM community, a key player in pangolin trade, must be engaged to conserve pangolins.

Little research has focused on the TCM community, so our study aimed to understand how TCM-related stakeholders, including TCM practitioners, retail medicine sellers, wholesalers, and the general public, understand and view the pangolin-scale trade in China. Between October 2016 and April 2017, we interviewed a total of 2301 people from four TCM-related stakeholder groups in two Chinese provinces (Henan and Hainan). Overall, respondents showed stronger support for trade of medicinal pangolin products compared to trade of pangolin meat or ornaments. Our respondents also showed little awareness of regulations related to pangolin-scale trade and yet, when respondents believed that trade was legal, they were more supportive of trade instead of opposing it for conservation reasons. It is therefore essential to ensure that stakeholders are well-aware of relevant regulations, so that they can reduce their own illegal behaviour. We also found that around 70% of TCM practitioners thought it was feasible to use alternatives to pangolin scales in TCM to some extent. This result suggests that demand reduction through sustainable substitutes is possible and conservationists should engage with TCM communities to encourage this transition. Most importantly, we highlight the necessity of engaging TCM communities for more effective pangolin conservation interventions because these stakeholders are hugely important in decision-making around the use of pangolin scale medicine.