Every culture has its share of good luck charms, items that for some reason are thought to have more power to influence that lottery drawing than the rest of the stuff cluttering up your junk drawer. Then there are those other substances—things like eye of newt, say—reputed to have even greater, almost mystical powers.
In medieval Europe, for example, eating a spider wrapped in a raisin was thought to cure fevers, and touching a dead man’s tooth was the best-known treatment for toothache.
In Africa, similarly legendary properties have been ascribed to pangolins, and particularly their scales (the hard, sharp-edged keratin growths that cover the body of this anteater). These myths, even the most antiquated and outdated, continue to drive illegal poaching of the threatened species.
Do these pangolin scales remind you of toenail clippings? That might be because they’re made of the exact same protein (and are about as effective, magically speaking).
Photo: Daphne Chui
Some of the false claims about pangolin parts that continue to threaten this intriguing creature include:
Protection against (you name it)
Afraid of bad luck? In Africa, you should carry your trusty pangolin scale instead of a rabbit’s foot. But the protective properties ascribed to pangolin scales don’t stop there; when mixed with the bark from the right trees, the scales are thought to ward off evil spirits and witchcraft. Others burn the scales as a protection against wild animals—maybe the smell is enough to drive them off?
In Chinese medicine, as well as some African cultures, the scales, blood, and flesh of the pangolin are thought to cure a whole host of ailments: stomach ulcers, mental illness, allergies, cancer, asthma, venereal diseases, lactation problems, stroke, and run-of-the-mill back pain, just to name a few.
Of course no studies have shown any effectiveness against any of these diseases, but that doesn’t stop the Asian market, especially, from importing hundreds upon hundreds of pounds of scales illegally every year.
A love spell
Looking to snag that special someone? Don’t work on your flirty laugh and just “happening” to be in the right place…bury a pangolin scale under his door. Some cultures in Africa believe that doing so will give a woman “power” over the man in question.
A tree pangolin, the variety you may see in East Africa.
Unsurprisingly, none of these mystical claims for pangolin powers have ever been proven, but that hasn’t stopped the slaughter; according to estimates extrapolated from seizures, between 100,000 and 200,000 (if not more) pangolins have been killed in just the last three years.
What would really be magical? Stopping the senseless poaching of a fascinating animal, and leaving it in its natural habitat.