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E D I T O R I A L Open Access
Baby pangolins on my plate: possible
lessons to learn from the COVID-19
Gabriele Volpato, Michele F. Fontefrancesco, Paolo Gruppuso, Dauro M. Zocchi and Andrea Pieroni
The Journal of Ethnobiology and Ethnomedicine (JEET), throughout its 15 years of existence, has tried to provide a
respected outlet for scientific knowledge concerning the inextricable links between human societies and nature,
food, and health. Ethnobiology and ethnomedicine-centred research has moved at the (partially artificial and
fictitious) interface between nature and culture and has investigated human consumption of wild foods and wild
animals, as well as the use of wild animals or their parts for medicinal and other purposes, along with the
associated knowledge, skills, practices, and beliefs. Little attention has been paid, however, to the complex interplay
of social and cultural reasons behind the increasing pressure on wildlife. The available literature suggest that there
are two main drivers that enhance the necessary conditions for infectious diseases to cross the species barrier from
wild animals to humans: (1) the encroachment of human activities (e.g., logging, mining, agricultural expansion)
into wild areas and forests and consequent ecological disruptions; and, connected to the former, (2) the
commodification of wild animals (and natural resources in general) and an expanding demand and market for wild
meat and live wild animals, particularly in tropical and sub-tropical areas. In particular, a crucial role may have been
played by the bushmeat-euphoria and attached elitist gastronomies and conspicuous consumption phenomena.
The COVID-19 pandemic will likely require ethnobiologists to reschedule research agendas and to envision new
epistemological trajectories aimed at more effectively mitigating the mismanagement of natural resources that
ultimately threats our and other beings’existence.
In memory of Dr. Javier Caballero, Autonomous Univer-
sity of Mexico and JEET board member, who passed
away 12 March 2020.
Ethnobiology, gastronomy, and COVID-19
The COVID-19 pandemic poses to the scientific community
andtoitsworldwideaudienceimportant open research ques-
tions in ethnobiology and ethnomedicine. Questions that
have regularly reappeared during the past century with the
spread of the various pathogenic viruses originally derived
from animals (e.g., Spanish flu, Asian flu, AIDS, Nipah, Mar-
burg, swine flu, SARS, MERS, and Ebola):
Why does the intensification of the use of certain
animal resources happen in certain places at certain
Is this intensification happening in specific areas
during a particular period due to commodification
of Traditional/Indigenous/Local Ecological
Knowledge (TILEK) or to which other socio-cultural
Is the search for an exclusive, elitist gastronomy “to
How can we prevent such unsustainable
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data made available in this article, unless otherwise stated in a credit line to the data.
* Correspondence: firstname.lastname@example.org
University of Gastronomic Sciences of Pollenzo, Piazza V. Emanuele II, I-12042
Volpato et al. Journal of Ethnobiology and Ethnomedicine (2020) 16:19
The Journal of Ethnobiology and Ethnomedicine (JEET),
throughout its fifteen years of existence, has tried to provide
a respected outlet for scientific knowledge concerning the
inextricable links between human societies and nature,
food, and health. It has specifically covered these relation-
ships from an ethno-scientific perspective, thus focusing on
the complex systems of TILEK and their transformations
across time and space.
In the past few decades, ethnobiology and ethnomedicine-
centred research has moved at the (partially artificial and fic-
titious) interface between nature and culture andhastriedto
investigate the socio-cultural contexts in which domesticated
and “wild”species and their ecosystems are perceived, used,
Specifically, JEET has published numerous papers ad-
dressing human consumption of wild foods and wild an-
imals, as well as papers addressing the use of wild
animals or their parts for medicinal and other purposes,
along with the associated knowledge, skills, practices,
and beliefs; less attention has been paid, however, to the
reasons behind the intensification of the use of certain
natural resources and, especially, to the links between
their commodification and the emergence of new dis-
eases from wildlife.
Zoonotic diseases constitute about 70% of all known
emerging diseases and are Swords of Damocles hanging
over global public health [1–3]. SARS-CoV-2 is the latest
of several viruses that have emerged in wildlife, crossed
the species barrier from animals (e.g., bats, civets, pango-
lins, apes) to humans, mutated, and then spread from
human to human. These diseases often have multiple
animal reservoirs and intermediate hosts as well as com-
plex transmission pathways, but viral transmission often
requires direct or indirect contact between humans and
A number of environmental and socio-economic fac-
tors are increasing contact rates between humans and
wildlife: trade in wild animals for food and medicine, en-
croachment of humans and domestic animals into wild-
life habitats, intensification of food systems and changes
in land use in tropical and subtropical areas,
globalization of agriculture and commerce, commodifi-
cation of biodiversity and its traditional use, and con-
sumption of bushmeat [4–6].
The complexities of the ecological, social, and econom-
ical dynamics of disease emergence, therefore, require
interdisciplinary approaches, for which ethnobiology and
human ecology are extremely well positioned. Given the
key role that the dynamics occurring at the interface be-
tween the “wild”and the “domestic”have in the emer-
gence of zoonotic diseases, ethnosciences need to reflect
on the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, its drivers, and im-
plications. Many dozens of scholars have long investigated
this interface both in terms of the dynamic relationships
(based on knowledge, practices, rituals) that humans es-
tablish with the other living creatures and with local ecol-
ogies, and in terms of the impacts that human activities
have on these ecologies and on other “webs of life.”
Because foods, food systems and food cultures play a
key role in the emergence of zoonotic diseases, food
studies explored through a truly trans-disciplinary
gastronomic sciences-centred lens can further help to
understand the processes and dynamics behind the con-
sumption of “wild”animals, its commodification, and
the system of beliefs and values that underpins it.
Here, we briefly discuss the COVID-19 pandemic
within the broader socio-cultural and gastronomic con-
text in which it originated and occurs now. First, we lay
out the main human ecological drivers for increased
contact between humans and (other) animals and the
potential viral spillover: anthropogenic disturbance of
forest ecosystems and increasing demand for meat and
medicine derived from wildlife. We further discuss the
reasons for the increased demand for bushmeat, both as
a response to food insecurity and as a response to a de-
mand for exclusive, elitist consumption. We then ad-
dress the relations that occur between the
commodification of wild animals and the traditional sys-
tems of knowledge and practices that have sustained
continuity in wild animal use. Finally, we reflect on the
ways in which COVID-19 relates to the Anthropocene
idea, with the processes of intensification and commodi-
fication as underlying common drivers.
Bats: an exemplary case study
In order to prefigure these dynamics (and the line of
argument below), we use bats as an example because
their situation illustrates clearly the complex relation-
ships between emerging zoonotic diseases, the intensi-
fication and commodification of wild animals, and the
key role of foods and food systems in this emergence.
Bats have been hunted for food and medicine since
pre-historic times in all inhabited continents, especially
in the Asia-Pacific region where big fruit bats of the
genus Pteropus represent an important food source for
some populations as well as an important element of
local gastronomy, and are considered a delicacy in
many places .
Bat meat is cooked in various ways, such as fried,
roasted, stewed, grilled, and stir-fried [8,9]. Moreover,
minced meat and whole bats cooked in hot pot (simmer-
ing flavored broth in which raw ingredients are cooked)
are available in restaurants in Southern China . The
culinary use of bat meat is also widespread in other
Southeast Asian and Pacific countries. In the Republic of
Palau, whole fruit bats are boiled in a soup made with
ginger, coconut milk, vegetables, and various spices. The
dish is served in local restaurants . In the Marianna
Volpato et al. Journal of Ethnobiology and Ethnomedicine (2020) 16:19 Page 2 of 12
Islands, the Chamorro people consider fruit bat, locally
known as fanihi, a delicacy which they serve during so-
cial happenings. Bats are washed and cooked in a soup,
and all parts, including the fur, viscera, and wing mem-
branes are eaten .
Bats are also reservoirs of several viruses that can
cause human diseases, including Nipah, Hendra, SARS,
and probably MERS, Ebola, and COVID-19 as well [13–
Cross-species transmission from bats to humans can
be direct (through contact with infected bats or their ex-
creta) or indirect through intermediate hosts (e.g., civets
for SARS, camels for MERS, perhaps pangolins for
COVID-19 ). The SARS coronavirus, for example,
was traced by Chinese scientists to cave-dwelling horse-
shoe bats in Yunnan Province, but in the market of
Guangdong, China, where the epidemic originated, the
virus was isolated from masked civets (Paguma sp.),
which acted as intermediate hosts [20,21].
In the last few decades, with increasing intensification
of land use (e.g., logging, plantations agriculture) in
areas where fruit bats live and with the commodifica-
tion and widespread trade of live bats and bat meat, the
ecology of fruit bats has been disrupted, as has the ecol-
ogy of their viruses. Processes of land use change to-
ward intensification have in many cases led to
increased contact between fruit bats and domestic ani-
mals (e.g., while roosting in trees in and around live-
stock paddocks, feeding on fruits in orchards) and
humans (e.g., bats drinking and urinating in open palm
sap containers) as well as to increased opportunities for
viral spillover. The disruption of bat ecology also results
in increasing numbers of fruit bats seeking food in sub-
urban and urban areas and increasing human and live-
stock contact with them or their fluids . All this has
largely increased the probability of viral spillover from
bats to humans and/or to intermediate hosts (wild or
domesticated) with which bats come into contact, with
global connectivity then amplifying its human to hu-
man transmission. At the same time, the consumption
of bats has spread to a wider pool of urban consumers,
and in southern China bats are found regularly in mar-
kets , where they may be in cages in proximity to
other wild animals. While bats were traditionally
hunted and consumed within locally based and eco-
logically attuned systems of knowledge, and these sys-
tems of knowledge often have norms in place to avoid
over-harvesting, the commodification of bats, as with
many other wild animals, leads to a race for maximum
extraction that will result in further loss of biodiversity,
further loss of cultural diversity of all those populations
relying on bats, and further disruption of the bat-
dependent ecological cycles, with further ecological
Intensification of the use of wild animals: why
does it happen?
Understanding the drivers and dynamics that underpin
intensification and commodification processes are of tre-
mendous importance. The available literature points to
two main drivers that enhance the necessary conditions
for viruses to cross the species barrier from wild animals
to humans: (1) the encroachment of human activities
(e.g., logging, mining, agricultural expansion) into wild
areas and forests and consequent ecological disruptions;
and, connected to the former, (2) the commodification
of wild animals (and natural resources in general) and
an expanding demand and market for wild meat and live
wild animals, particularly in tropical and sub-tropical
areas. The globalization of the world economy (high hu-
man population densities, global transport and move-
ment of people, spreading of information via the
internet, including gastronomic information and recipes
involving wild animals) has sustained these drivers and
facilitates human-to-human transmission.
The emergence of new zoonotic diseases in the last
century has occurred mostly at the African and Asiatic
frontiers between forest and urbanization/civilization.
This can be understood as a reflection of the encroach-
ment of human activities into forests and of the conse-
quent disruption of local ecologies, including the
ecology of viruses and their hosts. Indeed, changes in
the ecology of reservoir species can have a great impact
on the emergence of zoonotic diseases. Deforestation
and urbanization have likely contributed to the emer-
gence of the Ebola virus in West Africa. The encroach-
ment of human activities into forests provides numerous
paths for the transmission of viruses from bats to inter-
mediate (including livestock) hosts. The Hindra viruses
of East Australia originated from bats and horses sharing
the same environment, i.e., a horse pasture. Bats adapted
to roosting in trees in pastures after the forest in which
they lived was logged and transformed to the point that
it could no longer sustain bat populations. Similarly, the
Nipah virus appeared in Malaysia in connection with a
spike in intensive commercial pig husbandry, a condition
that facilitated the transmission of the virus from the bat
reservoir to a swine intermediate host, and from there to
humans . Bat populations, displaced by shrinking
forests and forest ecosystems increasingly deprived of
species, may turn to fruit orchards for food and roosting,
thus increasing the chance of transmission to other ani-
mals and to humans when partially eaten fruits are sub-
To the extent that humans transform and occupy the
forest ecosystem (e.g., palm oil or tea plantations, live-
stock pastures), they disrupt the ecology of wild animals,
which in turn may increase the likelihood of viruses
finding their way into intermediate hosts (wild or
Volpato et al. Journal of Ethnobiology and Ethnomedicine (2020) 16:19 Page 3 of 12
domesticated) and eventually into humans. The MERS
coronavirus, for example, appeared in Saudi Arabia in
2012, and has been shown to have bats as the original
reservoir and camels as an intermediate host [25,26].
Humans become infected after exposure to infected
camels or consuming the raw milk and meat of camels.
Although the dynamics of transmission from bats to
camels are not yet understood, they may involve the in-
creased contact that occurs between the two species in
conditions of sedentary (versus nomadic) and stabled
(versus open-air) camel husbandry, conditions in which
bats could roost inside stables and spread viruses to the
camels below with their urine, feces, and droplets.
As subsistence needs and a globalized consumerist sys-
tem pushes people (e.g., farmers, gatherers, and hunters,
desperate for food and cash) into the forests, more is
demanded and extracted from these areas, including
wild animals used as food and medicine.
A diversity of local and seasonal wild animal-derived foods
sustains the livelihood and economy of many American, Af-
rican, and Asian communities. These products are materially
and culturally important foods (e.g., providing nutrients, sus-
taining social cohesion, and cultural identity) as well as an in-
tegral part of the gastronomic basket of these communities.
Wild food consumption, in many subsistence communities,
is embedded into complex systems of traditional ethnobio-
logical and ethnoecological knowledge about the species con-
sumed, their biology and ecology, and ways of hunting,
gathering or fishing, as well as traditional knowledge about
processing, cooking, recipes and ways of consuming. Wild
food consumption is also often entrenched into systems of
beliefs, rituals, and taboos that aim to regulate communities’
engagement with wild natural resources and species.
In many parts of Africa, bushmeat (i.e., wild animals
hunted/collected for food, such as mammals ranging
from rodents to large species, reptiles) contributes sub-
stantially to the animal protein supply and often fetches
a higher price in markets than livestock meat .
Roasted, boiled, smoked, or dried, bushmeat provides
proteins and fat to rural and forest inhabitants, as well
as cash from its commercialization . The history of
AIDS tells us today that HIV-1 and HIV-2 originated
from SIV, a virus that was transmitted from non-human
primates to humans in Central Africa at the beginning
of the 20th century. The evidence that humans who par-
ticipated in bushmeat hunting, trading, and butchering
could easily acquire SIV, and that several transmissions
of the virus from individual to individual in quick suc-
cession allowed it to mutate into HIV, is robust [29–31].
Some studies have postulated that high-risk transmission
channels, allowing the virus to adapt to humans,
emerged with colonialism and the growth of large
African cities, in connection to a spread of prostitution
Bushmeat hunting is again on the rise today, particu-
larly in those tropical and subtropical areas characterized
by poverty and food insecurity. Hunters enter deep into
forested areas following roads from logging and mining
activities to source wild animals in response to a grow-
ing urban demand, with customers often regarding
bushmeat as a delicacy and a prestige food. Indeed, it is
not simply taste that is driving demand for bushmeat, as
price, needs, familiarity, tradition, and prestige also play
A striking example of the relationship between food
insecurity and bushmeat hunting is provided by the le-
murs of Madagascar. Borgerson et al.  have shown
that most children in the households of wildlife hunters
were malnourished. Bushmeat was often the only access-
ible food for these families, and under these circum-
stances, it is no wonder that hunters are lured into
commercial bushmeat chains that provision hotel and
restaurants with lemur meat as a prestige food . An-
other study in Madagascar has predicted that the rate of
childhood anaemia would increase 29% if access to
bushmeat, including bat and lemur meat, was restricted,
predominantly affecting the poorest households that
could not afford to purchase meat from domesticated
Poverty and food insecurity increase the demand for
wild animals for consumption and trade, and thus con-
tact between these animals and humans. Indeed, this is
the socio-economic background for the Ebola and HIV
epidemics. Interestingly, in a world that is ecologically
and economically interconnected, causes and effects are
complex and sometimes unexpected. It is therefore
worth noting that in several parts of Africa the demand
and consumption of bushmeat has increased as a conse-
quence of the collapse of artisanal and small-scale fisher-
ies due to industrial overfishing (from China, Korea, the
EU) and fish population collapse along African coasts
At the same time, livelihoods are increasingly being
commodified (i.e., dependent on products and services
obtained with cash), and this commodification and the
increasing need for cash drives further commodification
of wild foods and animals formerly hunted and con-
sumed for subsistence. This, connected with a demand
for these foods in growing towns and cities, has driven
additional extraction and the national and international
trade of live animals and their meat [40,41]. This all re-
sults in high demand for animal-derived products sold
In a hypothetical blame game, we could also blame cheap squid and
farmed salmon consumers in high-income countries for the next West
African epidemic stemming from bushmeat consumption.
Volpato et al. Journal of Ethnobiology and Ethnomedicine (2020) 16:19 Page 4 of 12
in formal and informal, rural and urban open-air mar-
kets as well as along streets and roadsides across many
tropical and subtropical areas [42,43]. The resulting
market pressure on the species and on local communi-
ties often brings about the erosion of norms and taboos
(e.g., regarding wild animal hunting and harvesting), the
shifting of the economic value chain and of control over
the resource from local producers to outsiders, the
adoption of invasive technologies for harvesting, and an
increase in wealth inequality within communities, thus
threatening both social and environmental sustainability
and resilience at multiple levels . With increasing
commodification of traditional and ecologically attuned
systems of knowledge, these systems have often been
bent to market imperatives for short-term gain, cheap
resources, and cheap labor. Unsanctioned and poorly
sanctioned processes of commodification (for some spe-
cies all the way to wildlife farming) are threatening
species previously consumed for subsistence, their popu-
lation and habitat. For example, the mopane caterpillar,
harvested from the mopane tree across southern Africa,
has become a commodity sold in towns and cities as well
as exported to Europe, and this has created stress and
threats to local lives and livelihoods (as people witness
the commodification of an important subsistence and
seasonal resource), to the species itself (customary
norms for sustainability discarded), to the mopane tree
that hosts the caterpillar (trees are felled to reach cater-
pillars high up the canopy), and to the same savannah
ecosystems of which the mopane tree is a keystone spe-
cies (providing critical food to elephants, who in turn
shape the ecosystem with their presence) . With re-
gard to mammals, the trade of live and recently slaugh-
tered wild animals in “wet markets”(markets where live
animals and freshly slaughtered meat are sold, and so
named because of the large quantities of water used to
slosh the floors) across many tropical and subtropical
areas of the world (e.g., Peru, South-East Asia and
China, Western Africa) has largely increased contact be-
tween different species of wild animals, and between
them and humans. Much of this trade relates to the de-
mand for products used in Traditional Chinese Medi-
cine. Traditional Chinese Medicine makes large use of
animal products, creating an environmental impact as
well as health hazards . Because this medicine is
widespread and growing, there is increasingly higher de-
mand for wildlife species and for the products obtained
from them .
Wild meat in elitist gastronomies
Over one century ago, Veblen  theorized that con-
spicuous consumption, i.e., the elitist consumption of ex-
pensive and superfluous foods and drinks, is one of the
ways in which affluent classes flaunt their wealth and
power. As Bourdieu  suggested, however, this strat-
egy turns these products into a status symbol which is
copied by other strata of society in search of legitim-
ation. While this process intensifies the actual consump-
tion of products, the “new rich”are the ones that are the
most eager in mimicking . This phenomenon is
more than ever evident today, in a global society that is
highly unequal and confers prestige to wealthier people
, in particular in China; a country that more than
others has experienced fast economic growth and the
rise of new affluent social groups [51,52]. While the
new social status is generally marked by purchasing
houses and luxury goods [53–55], food and foodways
are also transformed. It is not just a matter of eating out
in fine-dining restaurants , but rather asking for ex-
clusive foods traditionally associated with the old elites
, such as wild meat.
Asia is an epicenter for wildlife trafficking and wild
animal consumption. In countries like China, Myanmar,
Vietnam, and Thailand, the social status, prestige, and
gastronomic exclusivity deriving from ye wei (literally
“wild taste”) is the main driver of the demand for wild
meat, particularly among the wealthiest and those aspir-
ing to be. In the cuisine of Asian countries, ye wei refers
to bushmeat and game including wild and exotic ani-
mals. Historically, members of the imperial courts in the
dynastic eras used to request ye wei, including symbolic
and magical animals or animal parts, for their meals.
Nowadays, ye wei is widely sold in Asian wet markets,
offered at restaurants, and requested by wealthy con-
sumers because of their rarity and cost. In a recent sur-
vey conducted in China, almost a third of the
respondents reported consuming wildlife, with con-
sumers with higher incomes and higher education levels
having higher wildlife consumption rates . The rapid
urbanization and shift to a market economy in these
countries, and the subsequent emergence of hundreds of
millions of potential middle-class consumers wanting to
emulate elitist foodways, has boosted the demand for
wild meat, trade of wild animals, attendance of wet mar-
kets, and food and medicinal consumption of wild ani-
mals. These animals are sourced legally or illegally, from
the wild or from wildlife farms. A source for these spe-
cies is the thousands of wildlife farms that have arisen in
China during the last twenty years, which can be seen as
attempts to intensify “wildlife production.”These farms
raise a number of animals for food, from peacocks to
porcupines and civets, which are often believed to have
powerful medicinal and magical/symbolic properties. In-
deed, the SARS coronavirus has been shown to use
farmed civets as intermediate hosts before jumping to
humans [58,59]. Rhino horns, tiger bones, civet and
pangolin meat, porcupines, bamboo rats, totoaba blad-
der, shark fins’soup, and roasted bats are notable
Volpato et al. Journal of Ethnobiology and Ethnomedicine (2020) 16:19 Page 5 of 12
examples of this demand for wild luxury foods and/or
medicinal items. Commercial chains run deep into for-
ests to provision wealthy consumers by selling to restau-
rants, at “wet markets,”or through online platforms,
where consumers can also find recipes and cooking ad-
vice. In recent years, the trade of wildlife for food and
medicine has spread via the Internet, where virtual plat-
forms and ecommerce websites sell wild animals or
products obtained from them.
This demand is driving widespread legal and illegal
trade of wild animals. Wildlife trafficking profits are esti-
mated at $26 billion per year and are pushing many spe-
cies (often critical for ecosystem functioning and
resilience, and for the services these ecosystems provide to
humans) towards extinction. Humans are literally eating
and drinking species into extinction . In these circum-
stances, wild meat commodification and its associated ac-
tivities are likely to enhance the conditions for zoonotic
infectious diseases to jump to humans, while global con-
nectivity and human population density and movement
then help to spread the virus from human to human.
Pangolins: from medicinal item to exclusive
A prime example is the pangolin, the most trafficked
animal in the world, which is the likely intermediate host
of SARS-CoV-2 . Pangolins are nocturnal insect-
eating mammals living in the forests of Asia and Africa.
Pangolins have long been hunted for food and trad-
itional medicine across Asia and West and Central Af-
rica [62,63]. In Ghana, for example, people traditionally
use different parts (scales, bones, head, and meat) for
different purposes including spiritual protection, rheu-
matisms, infertility, and convulsions, while the meat was
used for preparing charms for chiefs or tribal leaders
. In Sierra Leone, the scales, head, meat, and tail are
prevalently used for food as well as for spiritual protec-
tion and to treat skin diseases and digestive problems
. Pangolins and their scales are similarly used (e.g.,
to ward off evil spirits and witchcraft) in Nigeria [66–68]
and in Benin , as well as across India and Pakistan
In China, pangolins are highly sought after for trad-
itional medicine (Fig. 1) and as food . This demand
causes over-exploitation that, coupled with habitat loss,
threatens the very survival of the species used. Pangolin
scales are regarded as a medicinal panacea (like rhino
horns, and like rhino horns they are made of keratin), and
their meat is considered a delicacy. The demand for pan-
golins in China is met by an illegal trade that is lucrative
and on the rise, lately attracting wildlife traffickers who
used elephant ivory as their prime generator of profits.
The demand for pangolin meat and scales, due to increas-
ing conspicuous consumption by the Asian middle class,
has driven pangolins to the verge of extinction . From
all forested corners of the tropics, pangolins are trans-
ported to Asian markets, where stressed and likely im-
mune depressed pangolins are caged with many other
species, and also with their own pathogens. This has emp-
tied forests of pangolins: a steady decrease of pangolins,
and wildlife in general, in African forests has been re-
ported by local hunters and traditional healers in studies
in Southwestern Nigeria  and in Cameroon .
The pangolin is prized as a delicacy in China, espe-
cially in the Southern and Eastern part of the country
. According to Challender et al. , this culinary
practice is attested to by historical sources dating back
to the 12th century CE: in present-day Jiangxi Province,
Chinese pangolin meat was common street food during
wintertime, cooked in lees from fermented rice wine. A
popular recipe from the mountain village of Zhu Yu,
dating back to the 16th century CE, consisted of curing
pangolin meat in salt for two days before boiling it in
water . Nowadays, pangolin is served in high-end
restaurants in urban cities, mostly in Anuhi, Fujian,
Jiangxi, Guangxi, Yunnan, Guizhou, Guangzhou, Guang-
dong, and Guangxi provinces.
Fig. 1 Pangolin
Volpato et al. Journal of Ethnobiology and Ethnomedicine (2020) 16:19 Page 6 of 12
[75,76,78–80]. Once the order is placed, the animal
may be hammered until it is unconscious and then
slaughtered in front of the customers as a guarantee of
the meat’s freshness. Some other time instead the animal
is smuggled to the restaurant already dead and preserved
in ice. Blood is drained and usually given to the customer
to bring home. The dead animal is placed in hot water to
remove the scales and the meat is cut into small pieces
, which then may be boiled, stewed, braised, or
Chopped pangolin meat is usually stewed with Chinese
wine, other meat including chicken or pork, and medi-
cinal herbs such as Ligusticum striatum,Tetrapanax
papyrifer,Stemmacantha, and Akebia spp. .
In Shenzhen (Guangdong Province), pangolin meat is
served in hot pot . Pangolin meat is also an ingredi-
ent of “eight animal stew”, a dish made from animals like
pangolin, swan, and snake simmered together for five
hours, and a soup prepared with pangolin meat and cat-
erpillar fungus (Ophiocordyceps sinensis) (Fig. 2).
Several recipes including pangolin meat are prepared
in Fujan gastronomy. In the western mountainous area,
pangolin meat is steamed, simmered, and served/covered
with a gelatinized sauce made with onion, soy sauce, gin-
ger, Shaoxing wine, chicken soup, and Danggui (Angelica
sinensis roots) . A soup is also prepared by boiling
the meat, which is served with pieces of pangolin tongue
. In the villages of the Yunnan–Guizhou Plateau
(Yunnan and Guizhou provinces), a pangolin and chest-
nut stew is part of the local cuisine . Besides meat,
pangolin fetuses are eaten in soup (Fig. 3).
Moreover, baby pangolins are boiled in rice wine to
brew a tonic and the blood is used as an ingredient in
pangolin-blood fried rice (Fig. 4).
Self-regulating mechanisms mitigating potential
overexploitation in TILEK systems
As subsistence-oriented populations are integrated into
the global economy, processes of intensification and
commodification of resources previously used for subsist-
ence take place. These commodification processes often
end up severing the links that existed between resource
extraction and the carrying capacity and ecology of the
surrounding environment. Populations lose their raw ma-
terials and spiritual attachment to their own restricted re-
source catchments, and these catchments become
providers of both cash for hunters and highly-sought after
products for global consumers. In the process, the same
traditional knowledge, norms, and practices that have sus-
tained a low-rate harvest of materially and culturally
meaningful species change: while the knowledge and skills
related to hunting and to the behavior of, for example,
pangolins remain key to providing these animals to the
market, the norms that regulated their harvest collapse
under the pressure of demand, livelihood commodifica-
tion, and the shift of decision-making from communities
to individuals and outsiders. Indigenous and traditional
knowledge, norms, and beliefs that regulate human access
Fig. 2 Pangolin
Fig. 3 Pangolin fetus
Fig. 4 Pangolin blood
Volpato et al. Journal of Ethnobiology and Ethnomedicine (2020) 16:19 Page 7 of 12
to different species in different places at different times
are nonetheless central to biodiversity conservation .
Indeed, traditional knowledge, its nuanced understanding
of ecological relationships, and the limits it sets to over-
harvesting are of great importance for biodiversity conser-
vation and for local livelihoods [87,88], as well as being an
attribute of communities with continuity in resource use
By investigating the knowledge systems that different
populations have in relation to the environment and its
species, ethnobiology and ethnoecology help to under-
stand and conceptualize the links between local popula-
tions, natural resources, and their management. Each
use of a species does not have just a material signifi-
cance, but rather it is embedded in cultural and social
systems that give meaning to that use and put that
meaning into the context of the wider ecology on which
communities depend and about which have deep know-
ledge. When animals and their products are divorced
from their cultural ecological context and commodified
at the national and international level, then the place of
these animals in the local culture and ecology becomes
irrelevant if they do not contribute to cash generation
and profit extraction. As seen repeatedly during the
Anthropocene, the severing of the dynamic link (and its
constraints) between human populations and the ecol-
ogy of the places in which they live opens the way for all
kinds of distortions, disruptions, and global threats, in-
cluding the threat of pandemics.
One of the mechanisms through which populations
and communities try to regulate access to and extraction
of resources is through taboos. The enforcement of ta-
boos may strike a dynamic balance between the bio-
logical and ecological characteristics of a species and its
rate of extraction and use. This is often achieved
through cultural and social mechanisms that may be ef-
fective as long as social and cultural integrity is not re-
placed with and substituted by commodified livelihoods.
In this way, uses and traditions may lead to wildlife con-
servation, as shown in several studies [74,89]. Culture
and tradition regulate the use of certain species; the re-
placement of cultures and traditions with Western cul-
ture and a profit-based economic system breaks those
regulations, with dire effects on the targeted species. In a
study about taboos among rural communities of
Cameroon, Bobo et al.  found that local culture reg-
ulates wildlife extraction and use through social norms
and taboos. Four types of taboos that regulate resource
extraction can be distinguished: (1) species specific,
which regulate access (e.g., hunting, fishing, gathering)
to specific wild species of ecological or cultural relevance
(e.g., totem species); (2) habitat, which regulate (e.g., for-
bid during certain times of the year) access to specific
habitats (e.g., sacred forests); (3) method, which regulate
the culturally sanctioned time, place, means, and ways
through which an activity (e.g., hunting) can be per-
formed; and (4) segment taboos, which impose restric-
tions on the consumption of certain animals by certain
social groups such as women or children [87,90,91].
Through taboos and social norms, resource-dependent
communities regulate the rate of use of the species they
depend upon for their survival, thus fostering resilience
and cultural and social continuity.
Contemporary forms of wild animal extraction respond
instead to the principles of intensification and
maximization (versus optimization) of resource use for glo-
bal trade and profit generation. This commodification of
wild resources and their embedding in global commercial
chains is sustained by a high demand for wild animals and
their parts for conspicuous consumption by urban and
high-income consumers, particularly in Asian countries.
Disconnected consumers and the importance of
With the disconnection taking place between consumers
on the one hand, and producers, biodiversity and local
ecologies on the other hand, the knowledge that con-
sumers need is no longer, or not only, about the ways of
processing, cooking, and eating foods, but also and im-
portantly about the consequences that their decisions
about what to eat have on distant livelihoods and ecol-
ogies. Several scholars have argued, in this respect, for
the important role of consumer education in food habits
and choices to reduce demand for prestige meat .
For example, shark fin soup is a preferred dish for osten-
tatious wedding ceremonies, birthday parties, and busi-
ness meetings in China, and the demand for shark fins
(often obtained through the practice of finning, which
involves cutting the shark’s fin and throwing the shark
back into the water) is pushing shark populations to-
wards collapse [93,94]. However, since about 2011,
there has been an estimated 50–70% decrease in shark
fin consumption in China, following many educational
campaigns on the issue. In a survey about shark fin con-
sumption conducted by WildAid, about 75% of the re-
spondents did not even know the meat in the soup was
from sharks, apparently because the name of the dish in
Mandarin is “fish wing soup.”This is encouraging in re-
lation to the importance of education. In the wake of the
COVID-19 pandemic, the Chinese government has shut
down wet markets all over the country and has begun a
campaign of awareness concerning the importance of
protecting wild species for collective health. The banning
of wet markets, wildlife trade, and wildlife farming, with-
out driving down the demand for wild meat, risks caus-
ing the trade to move underground, with a potentially
even worse impact on commercialized species. Rather,
demand can be reduced by informing and educating
Volpato et al. Journal of Ethnobiology and Ethnomedicine (2020) 16:19 Page 8 of 12
consumers about the consequences of their food desires
and habits; there is no prestige in driving species to ex-
tinction. At the same time, there is the need to support
alternative livelihoods for hunters, traders, and wildlife
farmers if and when banning wet markets and wildlife
trade. In the absence of alternative means of subsistence,
any ban on wildlife trade and consumption will have a
disproportionate effect on their livelihoods, pushing
many of them into poverty and illegality . Questions
on how to alleviate poverty, and what outcomes this
would have on bushmeat consumption, are nonetheless
open to debate .
At the same time, as zoonotic diseases emerge not only
from wildlife trafficking for human consumption, but also,
as discussed, from the encroachment of human activities
into forests as a result of land use changes and the expan-
sion of intensive husbandry systems, and also from the
disruption that these processes bring to the forest and the
ecology of its species (including that of viruses and bac-
teria), and as these changes are an integral part of the
Anthropocene, there is the need to rethink both our rela-
tionships with the rest of Earth’s community (materially
and spiritually) and our global food system based on in-
tensification and commodification, which creates profits
for the few at the expense of everyone else and their
health. Rethinking the global food system implies re-
localizing food production, reconnecting it with the spe-
cific ecology of each place where food is produced, recon-
necting producers and consumers, attuning each system
to the local ecology of each place, creating value chains
that empower all the stakeholders and not just a few at
the expense of the many. Traditional and local knowledge,
practices, norms, foods, and recipes would then again be-
come tools of attuned engagement with the surrounding
natural environment, rather than extrapolated elements of
a commodified feeding frenzy.
A crucial role in this change can be played by food
storytelling as well. The average conspicuous consumers
buy the final product based on the story, not the animal it-
self (they can also be served a specially prepared chicken).
One way to oppose that malpractice would be to widely
acknowledge the illusion of the exclusiveness of such “wild
foods”and to re-articulate the existing narratives.
In this respect, phenomena such as COVID-19 need to
be framed within discourses that redefine the perceived
boundaries between human and non-human, between
what are considered cultural and natural realms. From
this perspective, in the economy of wild foods, often pre-
sented as prestige dishes within global imaginaries of
gastronomic exclusivity, the “wild”is loosing its signifi-
cance, as the wild is not wild anymore. On the other
hand, the same imaginary is undermining not only local
economies, but also global health. Thus, the rhetoric of
the wild is increasingly reducing spaces for wildlife as
much as the livelihood of those who base their economy
therein. In this sense, now, maybe more than ever, that
wilderness yields the paradoxical result of making the
already fuzzy boundary between domesticated and wild
even more fragile.
COVID-19 and the Anthropocene
We might eventually ask ourselves what the relationships
between the Anthropocene and the COVID-19 pandemic
are. Is COVID-19 a creature of the Anthropocene like cli-
mate change? The main traits of the Anthropocene, i.e.,
ecosystem and biodiversity loss, disrupted and turbulent
ecologies, pervasive human activity, intensification of land
use, commodification of traditional foods and knowledge,
indeed also shape the conditions for the emergence of
zoonotic diseases. The spread of zoonotic viruses in the
last hundred years, more so in connection with attempts
at wildlife farming, recalls what previously happened dur-
ing the domestication process of livestock thousands of
years ago. Continued contact between wild animal species
and humans is known to be a source of zoonotic diseases.
With increasing close contact during and after the domes-
tication process, and with the increasing densities of hu-
man communities, zoonotic diseases like measles emerged
at that time. The sanctioning of wildlife farming by the
Chinese Government has probably improved the liveli-
hoods and economic conditions of wildlife farmers, many
of whom have been pushed out of the livestock sector and
into wildlife farming at the forest’s hedge during the 1990s
by the expansion of intensive livestock husbandry ,
but may have contributed in opening up an old Pandora’s
Box. Many of the diseases that have plagued humans over
the last several thousand years derived from our close re-
lationships with our domesticated species. In the same
way that the historical process of livestock domestication
has brought us new diseases, is it possible that contempor-
ary attempts at wildlife farming are leading us down the
same path? Indeed, both processes stem from the intensi-
fication of human-animal relations (e.g., the reliance,
close-proximity and handling by humans of selected spe-
cies, or their trade) which leads down a path that facili-
tates the crossing of the species barrier by viruses present
in reservoir and intermediate hosts.
Lessons to learn: future ethnobiological research
Phenomena such as the COVID-19 pandemic are forcing
ethnobiologists to readdress the schedule of their aca-
demic agendas and not only of their daily lives. This
paper was drafted by authors who normally share the
same physical space in a small university in NW Italy,
but that at the moment can only work together and con-
verse using online tools. COVID-19 is also requiring us
to readdress our teaching strategies, our ways of
Volpato et al. Journal of Ethnobiology and Ethnomedicine (2020) 16:19 Page 9 of 12
intellectually interacting within the scientific arena, and,
even more importantly, our research paths.
This pandemic will force us to rethink not only our
“classic”priorities in ethnobiology but also to envision
new epistemological trajectories aimed at more effect-
ively mitigating the mismanagement of natural resources
that ultimately threats our and other beings' existence.
Moreover, field studies will be more difficult during
and after this pandemic, and, nevertheless, more work
will need to be done in the near future along the follow-
Historical studies on epidemics and other zoonotic
diseases linked to ethnography-based ethnobiological
and ethnomedical studies;
New trends in the intensification of use and
commodification of specific living creatures and
their ecosystems for food, medicinal, or other
Research on the self-regulating systems (including
commons and communal goods) that local commu-
nities put in place to avoid overexploitation of spe-
cific resources in TILEK systems;
Ethnozoological and ethnobotanical research linked
to robust ethnoecological and/or cultural
anthropological analyses of the contexts of use,
possibly addressing diachronic and spatial dynamics
(and not merely lists of used species);
Human ecological studies on how access to natural
resources happens and how it changes in response
to changing socio-cultural-political contexts;
Surveys on the rising of new elitist gastronomies and
Eco-semiotic works dealing with models for
understanding how representations of natural
objects are constructed and function;
Political ecological research on how governance
systems at different levels may impact or mitigate
these intensification processes;
Environmental philosophical work aimed at
(re)defining the Anthropocene in times of insecurity.
The next few months will tell us more about how
COVID-19 will have impacted the way in which we look
at the relationships among living creatures, ecosystems,
and human societies, and how our awareness of the
value of the “webs of life”will influence our future stud-
ies and related reflections.
Special thanks are due to University of Pollenzo, Italy, for having funded this
editorial and to Renata Sõukand, Ca' Foscari University of Venice, for her
comments on the importance of representations and narratives in the
AP designed the overall logical framework and drafted the reflections on the
future ethnobiological research directions research directions; GV analysed
in-depth the human ecology and the environmental anthropology of the in-
creasing use of wild animals and drafted a first version of the manuscript;
DMZ researched Asian pangolin and bat-centred cuisines and recipes; MFF
and PG contributed to the overall anthropological discussion. All authors
read and approved the final manuscript.
The authors declare that they have no competing interests.
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