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Ashland lab finds no painkiller in animal's scales

Groundbreaking scientific tests in Southern Oregon could be the antidote to pseudoscience making the rounds in Asia that affect one of the world’s most heavily poached animals.

To test unsubstantiated reports circulating in Asia that a rare mammal known as a pangolin has scales with medicinal properties — they supposedly contain a painkiller known as tramadol — the National Fish & Wildlife Forensics Laboratory in Ashland recently completed extensive tests using new scientific methods.

The Ashland lab, the only one of its kind in the world that specializes in investigating crimes against wildlife, found no evidence of the analgesic in any of the 104 pangolin scale samples it tested, according to a June report published in the scholarly journal Conservation Science and Practice. The story hit the mainstream thanks to a National Geographic report earlier this month.

According to Ed Espinoza, a chemist who serves as the Ashland lab’s deputy director, the findings were part of a newly developed test that looks at solid keratin — a material similar to that of human fingernail — while leaving the sample intact.

“This particular design allows us to look into a solid,” Espinoza said.

The testing procedure involves heating the sample to roughly 300 degrees and running a stream of helium gas over it. The heat and gas release molecules, which scientists are able to identify using a mass spectrometer.

“We ID the molecule based on its unique weight,” Espinoza said.

In comparing a sample of tramadol HCL to the 104 scale samples, the study showed none contained the drug.

Espinoza said the testing method actually began with a different scientific question: Could forensic investigators determine a pangolin’s species based on the chemical makeup of the scale?

“That work has not been published,” Espinoza said, adding that forensic investigators need to prove what species the scale is from in order to take a suspected trafficker to court.

Espinoza, who co-wrote the scientific study with Ashland morphologist Rachel Jacobs, described gathering the reference specimen samples as the most labor-intensive part of the study. The search took Jacobs to museums in New York and Chicago to attain scales of each of the eight known species.

“We don’t have a budget to go to Africa for four species, or to travel to southeast Asia for the other four specimens,” Espinoza said.

According to the International Union for the Conservation of Nature, two species from Asia are listed as critically endangered: the Chinese pangolin and the Sunda pangolin. It said a pangolin is snatched from the wild every five minutes.

Without commenting on any specific investigations, Espinoza said the animals’ scales are frequently traded in the tons.

“It’s just atrocious the numbers,” Espinoza said.

According to the Washington Post, inspectors stopped a shipment containing more than 14.2 tons of pangolin scales found in 230 bags that originated in Nigeria and were destined for Vietnam. According to Singapore National Parks and Singapore Customs, the record-setting shipment was valued at $38.7 million.

WildAid.

About 50 metric tons of illicit pangolin scales — more than 110,000 pounds — were seized between April and August of this year, according to the nonprofit

Espinoza and Jacobs acknowledged that supply is only one reason why the animal is nearing extinction.

“The illegal trade in pangolins is largely driven by demand for their meat and scales,” The study says. “Pangolin meat is consumed in many countries as a delicacy, and their scales are often used in traditional medicines in Africa and Asia.”

The greatest demand for the scales is in China and Hong Kong, where the scales are traditionally used for pain relief. Heightening the demand is a series of false news reports that started circulating about 2010, according to the study.

“Recently media reports have suggested that pangolin scales contain ‘tramadol HCL,’ which is a synthetic opioid used as an analgesic,” the study says. “The original source of these oft-repeated claims has been difficult to pinpoint, but may be related to an article reporting results of research at Riau University in Indonesia.”

An anonymous and unsubstantiated report from about 2010 also claimed that the scales were involved in the manufacture of methamphetamine, the study says. The study says there’s no scientific evidence that the drug — typically synthesized as a hydrochloride salt for easier absorption — appears anywhere in nature.

“Any demand for pangolin scales driven by this misconception is unwarranted,” the study says.

Reach reporter Nick Morgan at 541-776-4471 or nmorgan@rosebudmedia.com. Follow him on Twitter @MTCrimeBeat.

A pangolin looks for food on a private property in Johannesburg, South Africa. As World Pangolin Day is marked around the globe Saturday, some conservationists in South Africa are working to protect the endangered animals, including caring for a few that have been rescued from traffickers. AP Photo / Themba Hadebe
Pangolin scales in bags in Singapore, where nearly 12 tons of pangolin scales belonging to about 2,000 of the endangered mammals were recently seized. National Parks Board via AP.