Creating a social movement to save pangolin from extinction

The pangolin, a small scaly animal that resembles an armadillo and an anteater, became famous in the early days of the pandemic as the possible original host of the coronavirus COVID-19. Found in the wet markets of China and Vietnam, the pangolin is also famously known for being the most trafficked non-human mammal on earth. Especially in Vietnam, the rich in elitist social circles eat pangolin as a delicacy despite all eight species being listed as threatened or endangered. The real cost to this species comes from how traditional medicine practitioners use the ground up armored scales that covers its body to treat ailments such as poor lactation in new mothers, rheumatism, infertility, liver disease, and cancer to name a few (Wang et al. 2020). Despite the widespread use of pangolin scales in hospitals and by traditional medicine practitioners there is no scientific evidence of their effectiveness1. In fact, pangolin scales are made from keratin, the same material as our fingernails, making it hard to believe in their medicinal value.  

Philippine Pangolin Curled up by Gregg Yan

Poachers are currently trafficking an estimated half a million pangolin every year which mostly end up in China and Vietnam. Annual seizures of pangolin scales have been growing exponentially since 2015 without a clear explanation2. Some contributing factors to the recent increase in poaching could be from expanding logging activity that has opened access to pangolin habitat and the low-cost barrier to entry (ie. hunting equipment) for poachers. Whatever the reasons, a major conservation shift is needed to keep pangolin from going extinct.  

In recent years, international governing bodies such as the Convention of International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora at their CoP17 meeting called for a shift in focus from the supply side of the illegal wildlife trade to urging conservationists to understand and influence consumer behavior to decrease demand. There is debate as to whether this is a viable approach to the illegal wildlife trade that is leading to species extinction and an imminent loss of biodiversity. Both China and Vietnam have bans on the use of pangolin scales in traditional medicine but the lack of law enforcement and knowledge of these bans by practitioners and consumers makes them completely ineffective. 

Behavior Change through Social Networks  

In tackling the issue of illegal pangolin use, Gabrielle Dorr, a current PhD student in the Environmental Sustainability program at the University of Ottawa was originally interested in applying the principles of community-based social marketing (CBSM) through the lens of consumer behavior to curb demand. This approach uses a six-phased process that involves an understanding of behaviour change interventions, consumer research, audience targeting/segmentation, combination of marketing interventions, providing a clear benefit to consumers, and reducing barriers/competition of opposite behaviors. CBSM can be an effective form of change that targets individuals and the collective community. The downside to CBSM is that it can be expensive and time-consuming to implement and many practitioners do not have the capacity or skill to develop an effective CBSM campaign. 

Listening to a podcast one day on the show Hidden Brain, Dorr learned about another field of study known as Social Network Analysis (SNA). On this podcast, the show’s host was interviewing sociologist Damon Centola about how information and social movements can go viral and what ingredients are needed to spread social contagions. This led her to read two books published by Centola, a leading expert on social networks. These social networks are not necessarily social media networks like the ones we all subscribe to today, but they are our social worlds that we interact with each day that have existed since the beginning of humanity. It turns out that we are heavily influenced not only by facts and information but also by the people in our social circles and there is a lot of pressure to conform socially in these networks. In Centola’s most recent book, Change-How to Make Big Things Happen, he explains how social change does not behave like a virus spreading through person-to-person contact. Instead, social movements behave more like complex contagions that take more than simply basic exposure for us to adopt a new behavior. Social influence around us defines how we behave when confronted with a new dilemma. Also in his book, Centola outlines the ideal conditions for creating a social movement that can spread and stick.  

In the field of SNA, which has been used to study whole networks relating to health, the focus is on the behavior of the network. SNA practitioners are concerned mostly with the network's relational data including contacts, ties, and connections, and how the different actors in the network interact. This theory and method appealed to Dorr because they outlined a way to spread a social movement using people’s own social networks to nudge them toward new norms. Tackling the issue of illegal wildlife trafficking which is complex and moves rapidly requires a solution that can meet this issue head on in a big way. SNA felt like the kind of change that Dorr was interested in testing out. 


Creating Social Change for Wildlife 
Dorr is currently developing her research questions and methodology to directly test the feasibility of building a network of consumers that can ignite social change toward the adoption of pangolin conservation. She plans to incorporate aspects of CBSM and SNA into her research which will be conducted on social media platforms with consumer participants from Vietnam. She will focus on cities and regional areas with high illegal seizures of pangolin scales. The general idea is to understand what factors of social interaction within a network can lead to high adoption rates of conservation by pangolin consumers. This includes quantifying interactions between participants, measuring the strength of ties between them (eg. Strong ties result in more connections in common), identifying influencers and characteristics of influencers, and understanding how interactions influence a consumer network’s choice to adopt pangolin conservation.  

 Pangolin scale burn in Cameroon

Past researchers have found that the use of online and social media environments is effective in spreading political and social complex contagions that translate to real-life action3. Social media networks like Facebook have increased our ability to reach many people quickly and have decreased the degree of separation between people on the planet compared to 50 years ago. In 1960, Stanley Milgram, a social psychologist from Yale, identified the existence of degrees of separation in his small-world experiments determining that there are “six degrees of separation” between every person. With the advent of Facebook, the degrees of separation between users on the platform as measured in 2011 are closer to an average of 4.74 and are even smaller than that now. Using social media networks to spread adoption of conservation is not a new avenue for practitioners but the way that it is done could improve the spread of innovation and actually translate to a change in real-world behaviours. 


There are some rules that are helpful to keep in mind when exploring the use of social networks to spread innovation. As we discussed, behaviours are more like complex contagions, so they spread using wide bridges meaning it takes multiple contacts and exposures for behaviour to hold within a network4. A simple example of this is a study showing how different hashtags spread on Twitter. Ones that are considered “idiom hashtags” such as #picoftheday or #bestvideo they spread more like a virus. Hashtags that are considered political or riskier to align with such as #blacklivesmatter or #novaccination spread more like a complex contagion. These hashtags require more reinforcement from a user’s social network before users adopt them5 


Another well-established theory about the spread of new innovations is that it is better to protect social networks from non-adopters early on. Practitioners should instead use social networks that are on the periphery as opposed to central networks such as “influencers” who are well-connected6. This is true throughout history including in the world of scientists, who tend to be more highly regarded for their knowledge. This theory is demonstrated in the story of Semmelweis, a doctor who ran an obstetrical clinic in the late 1800’s and who was shunned by other doctors for sharing his observations about handwashing. Semmelweis discovered that doctor’s hands were spreading “childbed” fever to patients in the clinic where he worked. He began washing his hands in between patients which quickly reduced the spread of fever. However, after publishing his findings and sharing them with his colleagues, the other doctors were offended by the idea that their hands were unclean. Their practices did not change in at least Semmelweis’s lifetime, another 18 years. Had Semmelweis gathered a small number of colleagues to have them try the same experiments he did and to publish their findings he may have been more successful in changing the doctor’s practices.  


Champions for Pangolin Conservation 

Dorr hopes to test the above concepts using a rigorous experimental approach that has lessons learned specifically for wildlife conservation but may also be applied more broadly to environmental sustainability. Once we understand the ideal conditions for the spread of the desired behaviour then we can convert consumers to become champions for pangolin conservation and reach networks that are further away. For the pangolin and like the coronavirus, huge external pressures and a decreasing window of time adds an urgency to this research to save pangolin from extinction. 



Bond RM, Fariss CJ, Jones JJ, Kramer AD, Marlow C, Settle JE, et al. (2012). A 61-million-person experiment in social influence and political mobilization. Nature. 489(7415):295-298 nature11421 PMID:22972300 

Centola D (2015). The Social Origins of Networks and Diffusion. American Journal of Sociology. 120(5):1295-1338 

Jin X, Chua HZ, Wang K, Li N, Zheng W, Pang W, Yang F, Pang B, Zhang M, Zhang J (2021). Evidence for the medicinal value of Squama Manitis (pangolin scale): A Systematic Review. Integrative Medicine Research. 10:1-7 

O’Connor C & Weatherall JO (2019). The Misinformation Age: How False Beliefs Spread. Yale University Press Books. 

Romero D, Meeder B, Kleinberg J (2011). Differences in the mechanics of information diffusion across topics: idioms, political hashtags, and complex contagion on twitter. Proceedings of the 20th International Conference on World Wide Web: 695-704 

UNODC (2020). World Wildlife Crime Report 2020: Trafficking in Protected Species. United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime.  


Photo Credits 

Pangolin scales 

United States Fish and Wildlife Service Headquarters (Wikimedia Commons) 

Pangolin baby with mom 

Shukran888 (Wikimedia Commons) 

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