A Pangolin Story: Hope Against the Odds

Why pangolins are “good to think with” amid the coronavirus pandemic

Photo by Biodiversity Heritage Library (CC0)

Last week, Nature published an accelerated preview of an upcoming article that strengthens the case for pangolins as hosts in the emergence of novel coronaviruses. The study reports on two related lineages of SARS-CoV-2 found in pangolin samples from multiple southern Chinese provinces, seized in anti-smuggling operations. Though the precise source of the human virus remains elusive, the authors nonetheless enjoin strict prohibitions on the sale and handling of pangolins (pangolins are the most illegally trafficked mammal, primarily used for food and traditional medicine purposes).

The same day, the class that I teach at Harvard, “Coexistence in Crisis: How Animals Made Us Human,” had its first virtual meeting. The course provides an overview of the diversity of ecological and cultural relationships that form between humans and other animals, including the more perilous dynamics that characterize the modern era. Of course, the coincidence of teaching such a class amid a zoonotic pandemic is not lost on me.

Like so many of us, my students have struggled to find meaning, solace, focus, and a new rhythm in recent weeks. Some expressed a sincere hope that these unprecedented conditions will set the stage for lasting and long-overdue societal transformations. Others were more reserved in their optimism, questioning whether motivations for a different world will endure past this disruptive event, and lamenting the human suffering that will inevitably ensue in the meantime. I oscillate daily between these positions, and find myself haunted by recurring visions of scores of lab animals being “sacrificed” in the urgent effort to develop a vaccine (and otherwise), even though such a vaccine would benefit me and many others. More generally, I am deeply concerned that this pandemic will only further human efforts to control and conquer (rather than collaborate with) Nature, to use her towards our own ends thus continuing the anthropocentric legacy that has brought us to the current ecological crisis, of which coronavirus is but one, foretold sign. And I worry that animals like pangolins will become scapegoats to an increasing extent, particularly given that many already face imminent extinction.

By chance, the book assigned for my class led to some timely insights, which I share here mainly as a provocation for (re)imagining the relationships that can form between humans and pangolins. For those who don’t know much about pangolins beyond their COVID-19 notoriety, a quick google image search is worthwhile. A total of eight pangolin species are distributed across Africa and Asia; Manis, their genus name, derives from the Latin root for “ghosts” or “spirits of the dead,” likely based on their elusive behaviors and appearance. Though pangolins’ scaly exterior resembles that of a lizard or a fish, they are actually a solitary nocturnal mammal giving birth to single offspring, and are noted for their bipedal walking. Given these and other anomalous features, which defy presuppositions about animals including human uniqueness, pangolins have received special attention in the anthropological literature, particularly since Mary Douglas’s seminal account of the role of pangolins in Lele symbolism and ritual. African religious studies scholar Kofi Opoku, in Paul Waldau and Kimberley Patton’s comprehensive anthology of animal representations across world religions, explains that in many traditional African cosmologies, animals “were considered to be altogether indispensable for the human quest for meaning.” Opoku quotes anthropologist Allen Roberts, who memorably claimed that pangolins’ unusual physical and behavioral qualities make them “good to think.” As French structural anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss might add, pangolins are “good to think with.”

Pangolins are good for many reasons. And yet, the above prompted me to explore the ways in which they are good to think with amid these disorienting times. In African mythology, Opoku clarifies that the improbability of pangolins’ existence suggests that anything is possible. As Barbara King summarizes in her book, “the pangolin, because of its unusual nature, becomes a central figure of hope for a number of different African groups.” Pangolins not only symbolize hope, but a particular kind of hope that defies all odds. In this way, a certain resilience is invoked (whenever threatened, pangolins curl themselves into a tight ball); again quoting Roberts: “just as a pangolin is protected by its scales, people may be shielded from difficulties. And in the same way that a pangolin rolls itself until adversity passes, perhaps people, too, can overcome their problems.” In other words, pangolins are an emblem of hope in the most unlikely of circumstances. This struck me as a relevant message in a time when optimism, for humans and pangolins alike, is in short supply.

Then, I probed further. Social anthropologist Martin Walsh has studied pangolin representations in Sangu cosmology. Sangu beliefs about pangolins are exemplified in rituals, which begin from the moment of a rare pangolin encounter, upon which the pangolin “latches onto an individual person and, according to villagers’ reports, will then doggedly follow him or her wherever he or she goes…until the person followed by the pangolin reaches his or her home. After reaching home with the pangolin the chosen person must report this event to Mfumbulwa, the Sangu chief’s ritual specialist.” As I read this, a recent headline came to mind: The coronavirus has thick spikes that seem to latch more easily onto human cells than other viruses. Curious.

In the unfolding ritual, Walsh explains, the person who has been chosen and followed by the pangolin is then required to undergo a series of rites while secluded at home (by some accounts, for weeks) before being reintegrated into society. I was immediately struck by the uncanny resemblance to our current period of home quarantine, which has demanded that we break from habitual routines. Walsh elaborates that the rites are reported to involve singing and dancing inside the house, in which the pangolin, Mfumbulwa, and other community members occasionally join. This part of the ritual conjured up images of Italians making music together on their balconies. What better way to alleviate stress and enhance immune function than through this ancient form of social bonding?

Walsh later lends scientific credibility to various aspects of the pangolins’ behaviour as reported by the Sangu, including the infrequency of pangolin sightings (perhaps based on their predominantly nocturnal habits), the bipedal locomotory habits of pangolins (which might enable dancing), and the potential for human-pangolin bonds that involve close attachment. Common ground between scientific zoology and Sangu ethnozoology (to use Walsh’s term) even invited me to (wildly) speculate that a zoonotic outbreak long ago may underlie these rituals, which involve actions that limit disease transmission between humans (e.g., confinement to one’s home, immune-boosting activities). In any case, Walsh’s careful rendering of Sangu beliefs demonstrates that indigenous epistemologies are not categorically inimical to science.

These parallels imbue recent events with meaning and intrigue, exemplifying how animals are good to think with, and that the human-pangolin story extends far beyond the scope of COVID-19. It is evocative of the unusual and paradoxical times we live in, resilience and hope in confronting darkness and death, and the role of rituals in making both solitude and social connection more meaningful. Above all, it is a story of the unknown, the unfamiliar — which, when embraced with an open mind, might even translate into wonder. Reductive, positivist scientific headlines often belie this richer diversity of ecological and cultural human-animal relationships. Stories can help us to reinvigorate them. Given that human encroachment has critically endangered pangolin populations, this reinvigoration does not mean increased contact — positive relationships do not necessarily require physical proximity, as our current experience perhaps makes all too real. But in the broader spirit of interdependence, of which zoonoses are one telling manifestation, we must not forget that pangolins are much more than zoonotic hosts. As Paul Newman has already relayed, Zimbabwean chiefs have used pangolin stories like those briefly conveyed above “to help change mindsets and give this shy, unique and increasingly persecuted creature a chance at a future.” Perhaps such stories can also provide humans with the historical context for more equitable, reenchanted relationships with the more-than-human world.

I have a growing conviction that stories are typically better than statistics and sensationalized news articles in inspiring peoples’ actions and mindsets, including the ability to see difficult situations in a new light. This is, of course, not to overlook the great privilege of having the time, energy, and other resources to read and write stories while other members of our species currently struggle to work, rest, and breathe. Yet my hope is that one day, we will reflect back on this moment in time as one rich in uncertainty but also opportunities for reconfiguring ourselves in relation to Nature: for developing a new story with us embedded in Nature, not above her, or separate from her, or immune to her being sick. When she is unhealthy, so are we. But as pangolins and innumerable other animals will attest, there are so many more stories worth telling.

I’m a primatologist in the Human Evolutionary Biology Department at Harvard. Here’s my website: cewebb.com