Scales of Injustice

What happened when I tried to buy illegal pangolin parts in China.

A pangolin in the wild.
A pangolin in the wild.
Jupiterimages/ Images Plus

This piece is adapted from Poached: Inside the Dark World of Wildlife Trafficking, by Rachel Love Nuwer, published by Da Capo Press.

We humans covet wildlife for all sorts of reasons, from jewelry and trophies to meat and exotic pets. Traditional Chinese medicine is another primary driver of demand for animals and their parts. Though herbs compose the bulk of remedies established by this 3,000-year-old system of medical belief, traditional Chinese medicine also draws on ingredients from some 1,500 animals. Of the 112 most commonly used species, 22 percent are endangered and 51 percent are headed in that direction, according to Zhibin Meng of the Chinese Academy of Sciences.

While tigers and rhinos are the most obvious examples, pangolins (aka scaly anteaters) are also on the list. Their scales—which are nothing but keratin, the same material that makes up human hair—are considered a cure for everything from fingernail infections to fallopian tube obstructions. Poachers killed more than 1 million pangolins in Asia over the past decade, largely emptying forests there of these shy, gentle creatures. With supply in Asia drying up, trafficking in Africa has taken off. Up to 2.7 million pangolins are now poached on that continent each year, primarily to satisfy demand in Vietnam and China.

Wildlife investigators told me that illegal pangolin scales are rampant on the Chinese black market, but I wanted to see for myself whether this was true. My cab driver knew exactly where I wanted to go when I opened my reporter’s notebook and showed him the characters for Qingping Market, Guangzhou’s traditional medicine wholesale epicenter. Below the address I’d also gotten someone to write down the characters for “pangolin scales”—a flimsy attempt to try to offset the fact that I speak zero Chinese. (I had originally hoped to bring along a local expert from the Wildlife Conservation Society, but a scheduling mix-up left me on my own for the afternoon.) I had no idea what, if anything, I’d find.

I stepped out of the cab and was immediately hit by the unmistakable perfume of traditional Chinese medicine. Whiffs of fragrant wood, pungent dried sea creatures, earthy mushrooms, and spicy herbs blended into an olfactory orchestra. Visually, the scene was dominated by Qingping Market proper, whose five stories towered overhead and occupied most of the block. Like moths drawn to the light, clustered around that wholesale beacon were all manner of small-fry traditional medicine peddlers. Some manned shops the size of a modest living room; others displayed their wares in a space no larger than a closet.

Some of the stalls sold live (or very recently live) animals. A man hunched over a writhing tub of pinky-size scorpions, picking out dead ones with chopsticks. A woman next door used a pair of scissors to dismember a brown-gray turtle—its head thankfully already severed. Mostly, though, the plants and animals for sale here seemed to have been dead for quite some time. Almost all of those dried specimens subscribed to a 1970s color scheme of brown, beige, orange, and yellow: chocolate-colored ears of fungus as big as frisbees, sea cucumbers that looked like petrified pickles, fish swim bladders resembling giant used condoms, dehydrated frogs with legs bound like amphibian prisoners of war, dried abalone that looked unsettlingly vaginal, and caterpillars with a single stalk of black parasitic fungus erupting from their shriveled heads. The identity of most of the shops’ contents completely escaped me, however. There were twigs, sticks, and roots of all sizes, chartreuse curlicues that looked like tiny spools of yarn, poofy balls that resembled old cream puffs, and much more.

I really had no idea what I was doing, so I decided to just pop into the nearest store and ask whether they had pangolin scales. Feeling a bit like a first-time drug user walking into a glass pipe shop and asking the cashier for crack, I strolled in with a smile. The owner, a younger woman, greeted me in English, which I took as a good sign. But when I handed the paper with “pangolin scales” written in big characters, her face fell. “No, no!” she said.

“Around here?” I asked.

“No—this is illegal!” she insisted, shaking her head. “We cannot sell anymore.”

“But I heard there are special places where you can still buy this legally?”

“Not this area. There is no permits here.” With a firm shake of her head, she ended the conversation.

A few doors down, an older woman saw me and held up some dried goji berries. She quickly realized it wasn’t goji berries I was after, however, when I pointed at the characters in my notebook.

“Oh—no, no, no, no, no, no, no, no!” she cried, shaking her head and waving her arms back and forth emphatically. She paused for a breath and then added another string of “No, no, no, no, no, no, no!” to clarify.

Given the reactions I’d gotten so far, I thought this wasn’t going anywhere. Yet I reminded myself that I’d come all this way to see traditional Chinese medicine. I should at least pop into the main market before calling it quits.

Qingping’s five floors were linked by creaky escalators (some of which did not work) and a grimy glass elevator situated in the center of the sprawling complex. Each floor was packed, wall to wall, with vendors displaying their goods in overflowing bags, heaping piles, and stuffed jars. Some shopkeepers sat at desks in the back, scrolling through their phones or eating lunch. Others were busy preparing and packaging their merchandise for shipment, while still others were occupied with meticulously picking imperfections off bits of wood or sorting caterpillars into little bundles of 10 or so, held together by bits of twine tied around their parasital head stalks.

Pangolin scales in a black garbage bag.
Pangolin scales, at long last.
Rachel Nuwer

Most shops, I noticed, dealt in just one or two products, and like seemed to attract like, with similarly themed stalls grouped together on the same floor. The sheer scale was overwhelming. One floor, for example, was almost entirely dedicated to deer antlers. There were jars and buckets of antlers sliced into communionlike wafers, antler chandeliers hanging from the ceiling like a Texan’s dream den, buckets of black deer hooves still attached to long yellow leg bones, and taxidermied Bambis with red bows tied around their dead little necks. The fungus section, likewise, seemed to take pride in elaborate, collagelike displays of their mushrooms and lichens, while shops on the birds’ nest floor went in the opposite direction: They were shinier, fancier, and more sparsely filled, like expensive clothing stores that contain just a couple of racks.

I headed upstairs to the sea horse section, where the air smelled of salt and fishy demise. Sea horses gazed at me from dried, unseeing eye sockets, their snoutlike mouths frozen in a macabre O! of surprise. These dainty fish are one of the most heavily traded marine animals in the world, with more than 5 million individuals caught in Southeast Asia alone to enter the legal international trade each year. Some of the most heavily fished species are classified as threatened with extinction, but the sea horse trade, like everything else I’d seen in this market, is legal. By now I had checked all five floors, keeping a careful lookout for images of pangolins, stuffed pangolins, the Chinese characters for pangolins or pangolin parts—anything to hint that a business might be engaged in the black market—but I hadn’t seen so much as a single scale. I headed downstairs, congratulating China on a job well done.

As it turned out, though, I just hadn’t been asking the right people: I had foolishly approached the medicine sellers.  Soon my eye was caught by the pearl dealers’ glowing beads, which, displayed at a single stand near Qingping’s entrance, were unexpected and out of place here. A bit dazzled, I decided to stop and buy early Christmas presents for my sister and mom, and ended up unwittingly stumbling into the pangolin scale jackpot.

The shop was run by a couple of cutely outfitted young women, both wearing pearls, sweater dresses, and baby-doll flats. The younger shopkeeper spoke a bit of English, and the two were tough negotiators. In the end, we settled on a price that was much more than I had hoped to pay—about $300 for three strings—but I figured, what the heck, I’ll splurge. The only problem was I didn’t have enough cash, and my credit cards weren’t working on their machine. The younger woman offered to chaperone me upstairs, to the market’s sole ATM.

In the awkward silence of the glacial elevator ride back down, I happened to remember the paper I had in my purse that said “pangolin scales.” I figured it couldn’t hurt to ask her about it. She looked at the paper, then back up at me, then back down at the paper.

“You want this?” she said at last, her words slow and uncertain.


“No … not here …” Her voice trailed off. It seemed like she wanted to say more, but she let it drop. I figured she was simply at a loss for the word illegal.

When we returned to the pearl counter, however, she said something to the other woman, who shot me a dubious look, as though to say, “Her?” Then the older woman took out her phone and turned her back toward us, facing the wall. She made a call and began speaking in a hushed voice. Intuitively, I felt that they were talking about me, but I had no idea, so I just smiled inanely and counted out the money I owed them.

Transaction complete, the younger woman was packaging up the necklaces into individually wrapped velvet bags when the older one turned back around, lowered the phone, and said something to her co-worker. The younger woman looked up at me with a pleased smile: “Yes, we have!”

“You have … ?” I wasn’t entirely sure what she was talking about, though I had a suspicion.

“Have those things!” she said, pointing at the notebook sticking out of my purse. She handed me the pearls, then practically took my hand. “I bring you.”

We left the market, and she told me in broken English that the other woman was her sister. We were going to see her sister’s boyfriend, who sells pangolin scales. We took a right, and then another right, each turn taking us down increasingly narrow side streets. Although still dedicated entirely to traditional medicine, the shops here were less professional looking—more haphazardly arranged, more tatty. Finally, we stopped at a place in a covered alley. Someone was playing Chinese music nearby, and kids scampered around between stalls.

The shop we’d arrived at looked like any of the other dozens of shops, albeit weirdly empty, almost as if it were serving as a front for some other business. Its sparse display included some cobras in a jar with yellow liquid, large pieces of fungus, and a few boxes of tea. A man sat on the floor, sorting through some kind of wood or mushrooms. On the walk over, I had discreetly turned on a voice recorder app I have on my phone, and after I returned to New York, I had the conversation between my pearl-selling hostess and the shopkeeper translated.

“What can I help you with?” he asked in Cantonese.

“She wants pangolin,” the pearl lady said.

“We don’t have this kind of thing.”

“Mr. Hua just said you have it. And that he went to get it.”

“Oh, Mr. Hua said it!” My translator in New York noted that the man’s voice sounded suspicious at first but that he relaxed as soon as Hua’s name was dropped.

I wasn’t privy to any of this at the time, however. Taking a seat on a tiny stool, I asked the pearl lady whether the man on the floor was her sister’s boyfriend. She shook her head and then took out her phone and opened a translator app, typing on it with turquoise-painted nails. A mechanical female voice on high volume announced the translation of her words out loud: “Wait a minute. Someone is going to get the goods.”

I suppressed a grin at the absurd turn this afternoon had taken. We sat around for a while, making small talk with the translator app. I decided to throw my younger sister under the bus, telling the pearl lady that the pangolin scales were for her, because she couldn’t produce milk. “My sister, she has problems!” I said, pointing at my own boobs.

“Ah!” My host turned back to her phone for help. “This is very precious medical material in our country. A lot of people use it,” the robot voice explained. “But not in the U.S.”

“Have you tried it?” I asked her.

“No, no!” she said in her own voice, giggling. “Too young!” As it turned out, she was just 21.

“I’m 31,” I lamented. “So old!”

Fifteen minutes or so later, a young man appeared at the opposite end of the alley, clutching a black plastic bag in a self-conscious way that made me strongly suspect this was our guy. He looked to be in his early 20s, was chubby, and wore jeans and a nondescript blue sweater.

“My sister’s boyfriend,” my hostess confirmed.

He came up to us and quickly opened and closed the bag for me to see, like a flasher on the subway. Inside were pangolin scales—a lot of them! They were shaped like little fans or seashells, and they had the muddled brown and beige coloration of a turtle shell. He put the bag on a scale to show me that it weighed 500 grams, or just over a pound. He was asking $300 for the whole lot.

I did my best to conceal my surprise and nervousness. I wanted to ask a few questions but not so many as to give myself away as a journalist spy. “How do you use it?” seemed like a good enough starting point.

“You need to stir-fry it and then grind it into powder,” the boyfriend answered confidently, speaking through the pearl lady. “It doesn’t need to be refrigerated, but store it dry.”

“This isn’t powder, though,” I pointed out, playing the part of the discerning customer. “How do you make it into powder?”

He said he had the equipment, and he could process it himself. This was a full-service operation, apparently.

“How much do you want?” he asked.

Thinking fast, I brought up the sister thing again. I needed to find out how much my sister wanted, I explained, but in the United States, it was now the middle of the night. I’d have to wait and call her this evening—her morning—to confirm what she wanted. “In fact,” I added, “it would be really helpful if I could take a photo to show her.”

The young woman translated, and the man seemed perfectly satisfied with this explanation. “OK, OK,” he said, opening the bag, allowing me to snap a photo of its illicit contents with my phone. I asked for his business card, which he happily handed over, and I shook his limp hand goodbye. After we parted ways, I quickly caught a cab out of there. Though I had never sensed danger, I couldn’t help but look back over my shoulder a few times.