Pangolins Being Sold on Facebook Despite International Ban, Potential Link to Coronavirus

Pangolins and pangolin scales are still up for sale on Facebook, despite being contradictory to the social media platform's guidelines, according to an investigation conducted by the Tech Transparency Project.

Pangolins, at times called scaly anteaters, have been the target of illegal wildlife crime for their meat and scales. All eight pangolin species are protected under national and international laws and the hunting of the animal landed two of the species on the critically endangered list, according to the World Wildlife Fund (WWF).

Facebook's community standards prohibit content that attempts to sell, trade, donate, gift or solicit endangered species or their parts. But, the Tech Transparency Project found multiple Facebook pages that offer pangolins and their scales for sale.

As many as 2.7 million African pangolins are killed every year, according to the African Wildlife Foundation (AWF). Their scales are used in traditional Chinese medicine and people believe they can cure a variety of ailments, including arthritis and cancer.

One Facebook page, called "Pangolin," offered oils made from the animal and was categorized as an "Animal Rescue Service," as well as, "Health/Beauty" and "Women's Health Clinic," according to the Tech Transparency Project.

coronavirus pangolins sales traffic facebook
Zimbabwe game reserve guide Matius Mhambe holds "Marimba", a female pangolin weighing 10kgs that has been nine years in care at Wild Is Life animal sanctuary just outside the country's capital Harare, on September 22, 2016. Pangolins are the world's most trafficked animal and continue to be sold on Facebook despite international laws prohibiting it. JEKESAI NJIKIZANA/AFP/Getty

Other pages categorized themselves as zoos. Moderators for two pages, "Pangolin Scales for Sale in Vietnam" and "Rhino Horns and Pangolin scales for sale in China," put them under that category, according to Buzzfeed News.

"We discretely hunt and sell Rhino Horn and pangolin scales contact us for more information on purchase, WhatsApp me," one page said, according to BuzzFeed News.

A Facebook company spokesperson told Newsweek the company prohibits the trading of endangered wildlife or their parts. "It's illegal, it's wrong and we have teams devoted to stopping activity like this," the spokesperson said.

When left in their normal ecosystem, pangolins don't pose an immediate threat to human life, according to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNDOC). But, illegal sales make them a potential health hazard and it's possible they were a carrier of the new coronavirus that has infected more than 3 million people around the world.

At a time when the world is grappling with a pandemic, UNDOC acknowledged protecting an endangered species may not be at the forefront of people's minds. However, given what we know about the current outbreak, UNDOC said stopping illegal trade in pangolins and other wildlife is a "critical step" in helping prevent future public health emergencies.

Two Facebook pages dedicated to pangolin sales have already been taken down for violating the company's policies. When pages are taken down, people can't access details from the page, including contact information.

In 2018, the Coalition to End Wildlife Tracking Online brought together experts from the WWF and global e-commerce, technology and social media companies, including Facebook, to reduce wildlife trafficking online by 80 percent by 2020. As of March, the 34 companies involved in the coalition removed or blocked more than 3 million listings from their platforms.

When pangolins feel threatened, they take advantage of their scaly exterior and roll into a ball to protect themselves. While their scales are difficult for predators to penetrate, the defense tactic makes them an easy target for poachers because they can simply pick the pangolin up and put it into a bag, according to the AWF.