Pangolin finding raises ethical question for veterinarians

Yunnan Baiyao boycott mulled as company rebuked for trading endangered species

Published: April 18, 2022
Abode Stock photo
Endangered species in Asia, pangolins are imperiled by a demand for their scales based on their perceived but unproven medicinal value.

Veterinarians are rethinking their use of a popular Chinese traditional medicine after Norway's sovereign wealth fund chastized its manufacturer for using and selling body parts from pangolins, which are endangered species in Asia.

Yunnan Baiyao, translating in English to "white powder from Yunnan," is an herbal formula used in veterinary and human medicine. Although the extent of its efficacy is debated in scientific circles, studies involving humans, dogs, horses and rodents show it can prevent bleeding and may also act as an anti-inflammatory agent and pain reliever.

The product, administered orally or topically, is trademarked to the Chinese state-owned company Yunnan Baiyao Group, which says the formula was invented in 1902 by a folk doctor, Qu Huan Zhang, before becoming state property. It commonly was used, the company says, during the Vietnam War to treat wounds.

Shenzen-listed Yunnan Baiyao Group has since become a giant in traditional Chinese medicine, with a market value of about US$15.7 billion. Its reputation, however, took a knock in December after the Norwegian government dumped its small stake in the company on the basis that its trading of pangolin parts creates an "unacceptable risk that the company contributes to serious environmental damage."

All eight species of the mammal, which resembles an anteater and often is mistaken for a reptile because of its scaly skin, are listed as either vulnerable, endangered or critically endangered on the International Union for Conservation of Nature's Red List of Threatened Species. The Chinese pangolin is one of two species that are critically endangered; the other is the Malayan pangolin. The remaining two species found in Asia — the Philippine pangolin and the Indian pangolin — are classified as endangered, while all four species of African pangolins are classified as vulnerable.

In brief

Pangolins commonly are trafficked due to their purported medicinal properties and desirability as an exotic food. The scales are used in some Asian countries, primarily China and Vietnam, to reduce swelling, improve blood circulation and promote lactation in women, among various purported benefits. A review of the scientific evidence published in March 2021 and conducted by scientists at the Tianjin University of Traditional Chinese Medicine found that "there is no reliable evidence" that pangolin scales have "special medicinal value."

Does Yunnan Baiyao contain pangolin scales?

The Norwegian Council of Ethics conducted an investigation into Yunnan Baiyao Group's business practices on behalf of the Nordic country's sovereign wealth fund, which, with US$1.3 trillion in assets, is the world's largest.

The investigation showed that in 2018, the Chinese company "sold significant quantities of raw pangolin scales from its own stocks to another pharmaceutical company" and "produced and sold" processed pangolin scales.

Jervan Hilde, the Norwegian Council of Ethics Chief Advisor, told the VIN News Service that it didn't find any evidence of pangolin ending up in the company's namesake product. "We did not identify medicines produced by Yunnan Baiyao that contained pangolin scales," Hilde said via email.

VIN News was unable to determine how the company uses pangolin scales. The company did not respond to a request for comment.

According to the Norwegian Council of Ethics, Yunnan Baiyao Group explained that it had purchased the pangolin scales legally from official stockpiles kept by the Chinese government. The Norwegians, however, said the legality "did not carry decisive weight" in its assessment because the company failed to detail how it uses the body parts, where they originated, the size of the stockpiles and how they are replenished.

The precise formula for the product Yunnan Baiyao remained mysterious for decades, at least to the general public. However, for it to be sold as a "dietary supplement" in the United States as it is today, the company must disclose its ingredients on the product label. On its English-language website, Yunnan Baiyao Group lists eight ingredients, none pangolin-related and all plant-based, including notoginseng and Chinese yam. It adds, however, that the ingredients "in China" are "heavily protected and guarded" and can "be different" depending on where the product is purchased.

The disclosure in 2010 of the eight plant-based ingredients to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration caused controversy in China amid concerns that "state secrets" had been leaked to the Americans, according to a report in China Daily, an official publication of the Chinese Communist Party. The report, however, shot down the claim, quoting a Beijing-based traditional medicine expert as saying the ingredients were an "open secret" among local practitioners and that "one couldn't make the formula knowing only its ingredients."

Yunnan Baiyao Group has sought to protect its intellectual property with patents, though that hasn't stopped other companies from selling imitations based on the eight plant-based ingredients disclosed to the FDA. Among them, for instance, is Albuquerque, New Mexico-based Golden Flower Chinese Herb, which says its San Qi Formula product is "designed to replicate the actions" of Yunnan Baiyao.

An ethical dilemma any which way

Photo by Dr. Carla Weinberg
Already a controversial product among veterinarians due to differing opinions of its efficacy, the Chinese herbal formula Yunnan Baiyao is now drawing fire because its manufacturer reportedly trades in the scales of pangolins. All species of pangolins found in Asia are endangered.

Even if pangolin scales aren't going into Yunnan Baiyao and are traded by its Chinese manufacturer only as a side business, using the product still presents an ethical dilemma for practitioners.

While any number of companies might engage in practices considered by some to be unethical, whether it's underpaying staff or polluting the environment, the case of Yunnan Baiyao Group may hit closer to home for a profession charged with saving animals' lives because it directly involves exploitation of endangered species.

"Society quite rightly expects vets to be leaders on animal welfare," said Dr. Andrew Knight, a professor of animal welfare and ethics at the University of Winchester in England. "That means supporting and leading campaigns to advance animal welfare, more widely than within our own clinics."

Knight said practitioners who use Yunnan Baiyao might consider putting pressure on the Chinese company to stop trading pangolin scales, either by no longer using its products or sourcing a similar product from alternative suppliers. "It is absolutely appropriate that vets use the purchasing power of their clinics to encourage companies to adopt animal welfare-friendly policies across aspects of their businesses," he said.

Veterinarians who use Yunnan Baiyao have mixed feelings about how to proceed.

Dr. Emily Dahlgran, a practitioner based in Brodhead, Wisconsin, was disappointed by the Chinese company's behavior when alerted to it by VIN News. "I hadn't heard this yet myself, but it definitely makes me want to change companies," Dahlgran said. "For myself, if I am advocating for animals, I can't ethically support a company that further endangers said animals."

Other practitioners are prepared to take more of a wait-and-see approach. Dr. Paula Jo Broadfoot, based in Van Buren, Arizona, said that while the situation with Yunnan Baiyao raises a difficult ethical question, she would be reluctant to boycott the product if it doesn't contain pangolin scales.

"I would probably be more in favor of allowing the producer to shift their practices away from using any endangered species before I would try to bankrupt them," she said. "Yunnan Baiyao is a valuable resource and can be life-saving."

Broadfoot recalls having a similar experience dealing with the use of shark cartilage, which long has been marketed as a potential treatment for dog arthritis. "Years ago, when we were apprised that shark cartilage harvesting was damaging a limited population, we decided to stop using shark cartilage and sought alternatives to that resource," she said. "We did not, however, boycott the company."

Broadfoot said she wouldn't hesitate to buy the Yunnan Baiyao formulation from a company other than Yunnan Baiyao Group if the rival manufacturer was reputable and she found the product to be equally effective.

Among practitioners making the switch is Dr. Patricia Baley, based in Houston, Texas. She is now using the San Qi Formula marketed by Golden Flower and said she knows a veterinarian in Ohio who is doing the same.

"Even if the pangolin scales aren't in the formula, if divestment is good enough for Norway, it's good enough for me," she said.

Baley, who also is an alternative medicine consultant for the Veterinary Information Network, an online community for the profession and parent of VIN News, hopes her patients respond to San Qi Formula similarly to Yunnan Baiyao. Otherwise, she said, "I really will be between a rock and a hard place."

Correction: This story has been changed to correct the spelling of Dr. Emily Dahlgran's name.

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