Activists in China have released a pangolin into the wild to celebrate new protections for the armadillo-like animal whose numbers in the country have dropped to near-extinction levels.
Volunteers had rescued and rehabilitated the pangolin nicknamed Lijin after it was found by a fisherman in the eastern province of Zhejiang.
“This is a good start… but this is not good enough,” said Zhou Jinfeng, secretary-general of the China Biodiversity Conservation and Green Development Fund, the group behind the lone pangolin’s release.
Just last year in Zhejiang, authorities arrested 18 smugglers and confiscated 23.1 tons of pangolin scales sourced from an estimated 50,000 creatures, according to Chinese state media.
Mr Zhou said that efforts to halt the sale of pangolins in China have been buoyed by a rise in global awareness of the wildlife trade linked to the outbreak of coronavirus in Wuhan.
The June 5 order from the National Forestry and Grassland Administration did not explicitly mention the outbreak as a reason for the measure, but the timing appears to indicate it could be part of China’s nationwide crackdown on the wildlife trade following the pandemic.
Scientists say coronavirus was most likely transmitted from bats to humans via an intermediary animal such as the pangolin.
Trade in wildlife including bats and pangolins has been linked to zoonotic diseases that leap from animals to humans, and China quickly cracked down on the industry in a series of measures long-promoted by environmental groups.
“We will release a lot more soon,” said Mr Zhou, who has vowed to free all pangolins in captivity in China.
The increased protection forbids the raising of pangolins in captivity and the use of their scales in the nation’s mammoth traditional medicine industry.
The US-based Save Pangolins group said Beijing’s granting of top-level protected status earlier this month was “a massive win for pangolins” after years of weak enforcement of existing restrictions.
Pangolin scales are an ingredient in traditional Chinese medicine and its meat is considered a delicacy by some.
Environmental groups say poachers had regularly circumvented the original regulations to sell illegally hunted pangolin scales and meat, often sourced from Africa and south-east Asia.
That has made pangolins “one of the most illegally traded mammals on the planet” with an estimated one million sold in the past 15 years, according to the Environmental Investigations Agency. Seizures have been recorded from Belgium to the Philippines.
Mr Zhou said China’s native pangolins have been all but wiped out. Over the past five years, volunteers have found only five where hundreds of thousands lived just three decades ago.
He said the new protections give groups like his the right to sue businesses and individuals selling pangolin scales, but he wants to go a step further by releasing into the wild all captive pangolins in China and burning all confiscated pangolin scales, similar to how Kenya incinerated seized elephant tusks in a bid to end the illegal trade.