Covid-19, the renamed Novel Coronavirus started at a wet market in Wuhan and has already taken the lives of at least 1,400 lives, with more than 60,000 infected cases all over the world.
Initial reports have suggested that pangolins were the hosts to the virus and the consumption of pangolin meat in China was one of the reasons for the transfer from animals to humans.
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Pangolins are the most trafficked mammal in the world with China being the main destination. Being the member of IUCN Pangolin Specialist Group, we are closely following this link to Covid-19 and trying to determine the association of the mammal with the virus.
I have been researching the Chinese pangolin for the past 12 years, and my fascination for this scaly mammal began 12 years ago during my university thesis. Since then, I have continuously worked in conserving the habitat and life of these small mammals. Every third Saturday of February has been declared World Pangolin Day to help spread awareness about pangolins both in the countries where they are found and where there is a demand for their meat and scales.
This year on 9th World Pangolin Day on 15 February the Small Mammals Conservation and Research Foundation (SMCRF) cleaned the habitat of pangolins by picking up plastic litter along with the installation of information boards along the Chandragiri walking trail on the western rim of Kathmandu Valley.
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Pangolins are very shy mammals, live inside the burrows and are more active in the night. There are eight species of pangolins: four in Asia and another four species in Africa. Among the four Asian pangolins; the Chinese pangolin (Manis pentadatyla) and Indian pangolin (Manis crassicaudata) are found in Nepal.
The Chinese pangolin is listed as Critically Endangered and Indian pangolin as Endangered in the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species (IUCN, 2019). They are also enlisted in CITES Appendix I and protected by Nepal’s National Parks and Wildlife Conservation Act 1973.
The Nepal government, university students and conservation organisations are working to protect these elusive animals. A nation-wide survey, development of monitoring guidelines and a five year (2018-2022) pangolin national conservation action plan have been undertaken.
However, detailed ecological knowledge on pangolins along with parasites and zoonotic diseases information are lacking, which means we do not really know about the threats to humans from pangolin hosts of the coronavirus.
Due to possibility of pangolin being the host of the Covid-19 virus, the mammals have suddenly been thrust into world attention. The Chinese Government, has already banned the illegal wildlife trade, including of pangolins.
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The Biodiversity and Health Ecology research group at Swansea University in UK have traced the association between 1,785 virus species and 725 mammalian host species from around the globe. Indepth research is needed to fill the information gap, conservation outreach programs to aware and capacity buildings training for staffs of protected areas, rangers, forest guards and relevant researchers regarding zoonotic diseases along with safe handling, rescue and rehabilitation of animals.
Once, we have more information on diseases, their hosts, causes and mode of transformation, we can save human life from many zoonotic diseases like Corona, Ebola, SARS. This would save both endangered species and humans from harm.
An adult pangolin eats around 20,000 ants and termites in a day that protect homes and crops from damage. Their burrow digging behaviour helps aerate the soil to increase productivity of the land that helps to nourish trees, flowers and vegetation in their natural habitat.
The burrows also provide home to other animals like rodents, snakes, rabbits and birds.
Tulshi Laxmi Suwal is co- founder of Small Mammals Conservation and Research Foundation (SMCRF) and doing a PhD on pangolin in National Pingtung University of Science and Technology, Taiwan. Sagar Dahal is President of Small Mammals Conservation and Research Foundation (SMCRF).