Although pangolin scales are made of keratin — the same material found in human fingernails and rhino horn — traditional Chinese medicine promotes the belief that they improve blood circulation and reduce inflammation.
“These actions of China will have a real impact, these are steps that were critical, that needed to be taken if real conservation was going to happen for these animals,” said David Olson, director of Conservation at WWF Hong Kong.
“Most of the demand for pangolin is coming from traditional Chinese medicine and consumption. That’s what is driving this large scale illegal trade.”
Sophia Zhang, director of the Pangolin Working Group at the China Biodiversity Conservation and Green Development Foundation, said that while she was pleased by the result, she felt it came “a bit late.”
“Many years have passed. How many pangolins have already been hunted and killed?” she said.
Despite China banning the import of pangolin products in 2018, the trade continued, with large shipments regularly intercepted on their way to the country.
But Steve Blake, chief representative of Wildaid in Beijing, said there had been a growing public movement inside China in recent years pushing for greater protection for pangolins.
“The momentum has been building for years … when this news was announced yesterday it was trending on (Chinese) social media with more than 150 million views,” he said.
The virus has now infected more than 7 million people across the world since it was detected last December in the Chinese city of Wuhan, including at least 84,000 cases in mainland China.
According to a team of researchers from Duke University and Los Alamos National Laboratory, the virus swapped genes repeatedly with similar strains infecting bats, pangolins and a possible third species prior to jumping to humans.
The researchers concluded that although it was too soon to blame pangolins for the pandemic, it was clear that people must reduce their contact with wild animals that can transmit new infections.
But experts said that for both bans to be effective, they must be properly enforced by authorities and combined with public education campaigns.
“They need better enforcement and greater public awareness to reduce the demand, make sure the public is aware of the risks of consuming these products and aware of the impact on the environment,” he said. “It takes a bit of time.”
Aron White, wildlife campaigner at the Environmental Investigation Agency, said that he was concerned pangolins scales could continue to be used for traditional medicine through a loophole previously used with controversial ingredients such as leopard bones and bear bile.
“Pangolin (was) listed in two ‘sections’ of the pharmacopoeia, as an ingredient in the first section, and also within the second section which lists formulae for patent medicines,” White said.
“I am concerned that pangolin scales may be maintained as an ingredient within these formulas despite having been removed from the first section.”
White said it wouldn’t be clear until the full 2020 Pharmacoepia was published whether the formulas had been changed.
Even if they are fully removed, Zhang from the Pangolin Working Group said she was worried that the damage to the pangolin populations in China may be irreversible.
“Not only do pangolins need to be removed from the list — pangolins are already a tragedy and rarely can be seen now — all endangered species should be removed from the medicine list,” she said.
“Don’t wait until the animal will soon die out before taking it out from the list. There will be no turning back then.”
CNN’s Shanshan Wang, Eric Cheung and Steven Jiang contributed to this article.