The following article appeared in Wired magazine, in print and online on October 10, 2020. It was written by Sabrina Weiss and the photos are by Julien Faure. The original article can be found here

Pangolin scales are a prized ingredient in traditional Chinese medicine – and that has put the animal firmly on the endangered list. Isoscape tracking could help stop their slaughter at the source

Pangolins are thought to have passed the coronavirus to humans, after they first caught it from horseshoe bats

Before researchers suggested pangolins may be a missing link in the transmission of coronavirus from bats to humans, most people had never even heard of them. Yet these scaly, ant-eating mammals are smuggled in huge numbers to Asia and are in danger of extinction.

There are eight species of pangolin, split evenly between Africa and Asia, and each one of them is barred from international trade. So identifying confiscated scales and body parts as “pangolin” can be enough to prosecute a criminal case. But discerning different species and tracing their geographic origins is more tricky. This is where wildlife forensics comes in, a rapidly developing field that uses scientific procedures to investigate crimes against wildlife. To help crack down on intricate trafficking routes and poaching hotspots, scientists and laboratory technicians are figuring out ways to analyse the DNA and dietary history of seized animals and their products.

Pangolin scales are a booming business in Asia thanks to their status as an ingredient in traditional Chinese medicine, while the animal’s meat is considered a delicacy
Julien Faure / INSTITUTE

Most consumers come from mainland China and Vietnam, where pangolin meat is a prized delicacy and keratin scales are a popular ingredient in traditional Chinese medicine, touted as a cure for anything from asthma to cancer, and as an aid to help mothers with lactation. Pangolins have recently been in the spotlight for their potential role in the Covid-19 pandemic. Sars-Cov-2, the virus that causes the novel disease, is suspected to have originated in horseshoe bats and possibly leaped to humans via pangolins.