The “New Pangolins”, with spines and a bezoar

Director´s view

Miroslav Bobek  |  17. 10. 2020

For many years now millions and millions of pangolins have been trafficked. It took a long time – and who knows if it’s not too late – for work to begin on giving them more effective protection. We are also trying to help with this. We have co-financed the Pangolarium in Laos and we intend to support the creation of a similar facility in Indonesia. At the same time, we are adding a clause to the contract that this rescue station will not only be for pangolins, but other mammal species too. There is a good reason for this: nowadays porcupines in Southeast Asia are in the same situation as pangolins were ten years ago. The trade in them seems to have started to skyrocket, and there is a real threat that the abundance of some species will soon find itself on a steeply descending curve.

Photo: Petr Hamerník, Prague Zoo Photo: Petr Hamerník, Prague Zoo

If the reason for the trade in pangolins is their meat and, especially, their scales, then in the case of porcupines it is their meat, spines – and their bezoar. It is formed in ruminants, or in porcupines, by the accumulation and compression of undigested food residues. At first, they are fibrous twists, which gradually become oval in shape and other substances settle on them, so that they finally resemble stones. The very word “bezoar” has its origins in the Persian pād-zahr, which means antidote – and this explains why a bezoar was a highly prized commodity in Europe for centuries. Its price here is said to have been up to forty times the price of gold.

In contrast to Europe, interest in the bezoar has never waned in Asia, and the current demand for porcupine bezoars is mainly driven by China. It would seem that a significant proportion of the business is done over the Internet, which also tells us what this bezoar is good for: apparently it cures dengue fever, liver disease, infectious diseases and even cancer. Currently, there is also an argument running as to why, due to its effects, it will certainly help against covid-19.

I probably don’t have to point out that the healing effects of the bezoar have not been proven and that it is more likely that it is playing on human superstition, or even an abuse of those who are sick and in a difficult situation. On top of all that, of course, it is a highly lucrative business. For example, a nugget of porcupine bezoar weighing 38.4 grams sells for $ 3,800. $100 per gram, which according to a survey published last year, is still a very good price.

There is more ambiguity surrounding the trade in porcupine bezoars than there are specific facts. Although porcupines are also raised on farms in some places, many, if not most, customers prefer their bezoar from a wild animal. Their source areas are South Asian countries – Indonesia, Malaysia, and others – but no one has a clue as to how many porcupines are killed. However, not every porcupine has a bezoar in it; estimates work with a ratio of at least 1:10.

In contrast, what is certain is that there is not much time left to work for the effective protection of porcupines and to stop the trade in their bezoars. However, so far, unfortunately, it seems more likely that a similar scenario will be repeated as was the case of the pangolins.