From Nature, January 8, 1938:

Chinese Medicine and the Pangolin

“The pangolin or scaly ant-eater (Manis penta-dactyla dalmanni) is the most primitive of Chinese mammals, and although it is fully protected by law in the colony and island of Hong-Kong, the demand for its carcass makes more extensive protection in South China necessary (Hong Kong Naturalist, July 1937, 79). The animal itself is eaten, but a greater danger arises from the belief that the scales have medicinal value. Fresh scales are never used, but dried scales are roasted, ashed, cooked in oil, butter, vinegar, boy’s urine, or roasted with earth or oyster-shells, to cure a variety of ills. Amongst these are excessive nervousness and hysterical crying in children, women possessed by devils and ogres, malarial fever and deafness. So much are pangolin scales in request for these purposes that yearly the scales from some 4,000 or 5,000 individuals were imported from Java, with a value of 3,700 guilders. But recent regulations in Java, which prohibit capturing and killing of pangolins and the export of scales, will turn the attention of the Chinese medicine men more forcibly towards the native product.”

Sometimes pangolins are cruelly kept alive without food or water while their scales are gradually pulled off.


The extract above was written nearly 70 years ago. It sounds like a wild historical anthropological memory, and yet pangolin scales are still in increasing demand for use in traditional Chinese and Vietnamese remedies. The Journal of Chinese Medicine website describes their uses today using TCM terminology:

“Chuan Shan Jia [Manitis Squama/Pangolin scales] is classified as salty and cool and as entering the Liver and Stomach channels. It is traditionally used in Chinese medicine to disperse blood stasis (for promoting menstruation and lactation), reducing swelling and promoting discharge of pus (for abscesses and boils etc.) and for expelling wind-dampness (for pain due to rheumatism/arthritis).”

For the expert practitioner, there are at least 35 other herbs in this category  of ‘Blood invigorating and stasis removing herbs’.  Though restricted to use in designated hospitals and in patent medicines after 2007, the scales remain listed as an official drug in the Chinese Pharmacopoeia 2010. However, there are at least three recognised substitutes for Pangolin Scales. (see D. Bensky et. al, ‘Chinese Herbal Medicine, Materia Medica’ 3rd Edition, Ch. 19 ‘Obsolete Substances’ pp. 1064-1065), namely:

1. Thorns of Gleditsia sinensis (Zao Jiao Ci) used to pierce and promote the perforation of sores (properties acrid warm; channels liver, stomach, lung)

2. Seeds of Vaccaria segetalis (Wang Bu Liu Xing) promote the movement of blood and encourage lactation (properties bitter, neutral; channels liver, stomach)

3. Shells of species of Arca – cockle shells (Wa Leng Zi) reduce abdominal masses, invigorates the blood (properties salty, neutral; channels liver, spleen, lung)

Pangolin Research Mundulea is working with other members of the IUCN Specialist Subgroup on pangolins to reduce demand by removing pangolin scales from the Pharmacopoeia and promoting the use of the substitutes in China and Vietnam.


“Research revealed that the effects of cowherb seed were equal to or even better than that of pangolin scales…”


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