The Chinese government has removed pangolin scales from its 2020 list of approved ingredients used in traditional Chinese medicine, and raised the animal's protection level, announced the Chinese Pharmacopeia Commission on Tuesday.
Pangolins are scale-covered insectivores, about the size of a house cat, that are highly valued in Asia for their meat and scales. Last year alone, authorities seized more than 130 tons of pangolin related products, a figure estimated to represent up to 400,000 animals, according to conservation group WildAid, reports CNN.
There are eight species of pangolin found in Asia and Africa. To date, three species are listed as critically endangered by the International Union for Conservation of Nature --- the Chinese pangolin, Philippine pangolin and Sunda pangolin, which is found across southeast Asia. The remaining five species, including the Indian pangolin, are listed as either vulnerable or endangered.
Although pangolin scales are made of keratin - the same material found in human fingernails and rhino horn - traditional Chinese medicine promotes the belief that they improve blood circulation and reduce inflammation.
According to Chinese state-run media Tuesday, the latest edition of Chinese Pharmacopoeia -- an official government compendium of drugs covering traditional Chinese - and Western medicines, no longer includes pangolin scales on the list of approved ingredients, owing to "wild resources exhaustion."
"These actions of China will have a real impact, these are steps that were critical, that needed to be taken if real conservation was going to happen for these animals," said David Olson, director of Conservation at WWF Hong Kong.
"Most of the demand for pangolin is coming from traditional Chinese medicine and consumption. That's what is driving this large scale illegal trade."
The decision to remove the pangolin from the official list comes just days after China's State Forestry and Grassland Bureau announced that the Chinese pangolin would be upgraded to a "first-level protected wild animal," the highest possible protection status alongside pandas and tigers.
Sophia Zhang, director of the Pangolin Working Group at the China Biodiversity Conservation and Green Development Foundation, said that while she was pleased by the result, she felt it came "a bit late."
"Many years have passed. How many pangolins have already been hunted and killed?" she said.
The trade in pangolins has had a devastating impact on local populations in Asia. According to the International Union for the Conservation of Nature, pangolin populations in China have dropped by more than 90% since 1960.
As pangolins in Asia were hunted to their limits, a booming trade began in scales from pangolin species native to Africa. Between 2013 and 2019, two African species of pangolin, the white-bellied pangolin and the giant pangolin, have seen their populations move from vulnerable to endangered.
Despite China banning the import of pangolin products in 2018, the trade continued, with large shipments regularly intercepted on their way to the country.
But Steve Blake, chief representative of Wildaid in Beijing, said there had been a growing public movement inside China in recent years pushing for greater protection for pangolins.
"The momentum has been building for years, when this news was announced yesterday it was trending on (Chinese) social media with more than 150 million views," he said.