Pangolin in Peril

On a balmy summer night in South China I met with a factory that I had been moving business away from for the last five years. In order to get it back they rolled out the red carpet. A luxury car picked me up at the train station, Qingdao beer in the cup holders, and $300 a pack Liqun cigarettes in the console showed they were prepared to impress.

We started with a tour of the empty factory. Apparently I wasn’t the only one moving business away.  A factory that once housed 800 employees in its dormitories was down to just 70 workers. The assembly lines were empty, powder coating rooms shut down, and test areas vacant.  I couldn’t help but feel guilty.

I was invited to dinner, an invitation I couldn’t turn down. We walked through the village cemetery, which housed the tomb of their father, on the way to their mansion house.  It was here, under the life-sized portrait of the patriarch that we ate. They tried their best to sell me on the changes taking place within the company.  I was intrigued thinking I may finally have a like-minded business partner to grow with.

Being the guest of honor I was given each plate first. The family, and the portrait, stared at me in anticipation as I ate the first bite of each dish. Regardless of taste I’d smile in approval and it would be sent to the next person.  As one plate came out I was told I was being treated to something special, something “good for the man strength.” I again took the first taste. It had the texture of sushi, and the taste of an over boiled chicken. I forced it down with a shot of baijiu, smiled, and said “很好吃,” or “delicious.” The lazy susan spun to the right.

As everyone enjoyed the unique delicacy they explained this was a rare and expensive meat. The name was incomprehensible in Chinese.  In English they called it “pangorin.” “Penguin” I asked? I was slightly nauseous thinking I had just eaten a penguin. The host pulled out his xiaomi smart phone and found a picture. It was unlike anything I had ever seen. It wasn’t a penguin, not even close. I had eaten a Pangolin!  As they scrolled through the pictures of pangolins riding their mother’s tails, curling around people’s hands, hanging from trees and doing all kinds of cute things I wondered what this animal was and where it came from.

My question would soon be answered, followed by answers to questions I hadn’t asked. Scrolling down the host passed a picture of a pangolin raid. They were right. It is extremely rare. It is also the most trafficked mammal in the world. It was only after eating it that I realized I had eaten an endangered species. Repulsed and upset by the realization I accusatorily questioned why he would ever think that eating an endangered species would impress me? He snapped back “I treat you to an expensive meal in my parents home and you shout at me?” I was shocked. He had no idea that it was endangered. He didn’t even know the meaning of the word endangered. He thought he was treating me to a rare culinary experience.

As things cooled down, a sad realization came over me. They truly didn’t know that what they were doing was wrong, I believe this holds true for most pangolin connoisseurs.  This is the true “plight of the Pangolin.” The pangolin lacks the majesty of the elephant, glamour of the rhino, and the beauty of the shark. There is no Yao Ming to appear in ad campaigns denouncing the traffickers, and raising awareness amongst the population.  It has no name recognition.  The people serving and dining on pangolin are not to blame, unfortunately they don’t know.  These people were as shocked and disgusted by the pictures of the Pangolin traffickers as I was. They were also then worried that they would get in trouble. The plight of the pangolin, no one knows what it is.