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Curtis Abraham

What if a wildlife product has been scientifically proven of having chemical properties that are potentially effective in fighting illness such as cancer, but the animal from which these active compounds are extracted is facing rapidly declining populations in Southeast Asia and concurrently an uptick in poaching in West and Central Africa for its lucrative byproduct? And, what if a rise in the killing of these “ecological engineers” is also because of their inexpensive meat to feed rising populations in both regions, but uncoordinated wildlife legislation among countries such as Malaysia, Indonesia and Singapore as well as ineffective monitoring of harvesting and illegal trade are further hampering conservation efforts. But what if bioprospectors for new medicines and biodiversity conservationists were able to forge partnerships that could help conservation efforts of species in similar situations while providing humanity with potentially new life-saving pharmaceuticals? 


Above describes the current situation with Old World porcupines (Hystricidae) and their bezoars, golf ball-sized spherical objects of undigested matter that are occasionally formed in an animal’s gastrointestinal tract. Bezoars were once used in Europe as traditional medicine (bezoar means ‘antidote’ in ancient Persian), but in Asia this practice has continued for a variety of diseases and ailments (Asiatic Black Bears, [Ursus thibetanus], are in a similar predicament because their gallbladders are harvested for bile, which is then used in Chinese traditional medicine and contains components that have some anti-inflammatory, anti-microbial effects including preventing liver disease and damage according to scientific studies). But unlike bezoar-producing porcupines, these bears are not targeted for their meat).     


Recently, biomedical researchers writing in several scientific journals claim to have identified disease-fighting compounds that might be effective in combating cancer. An August 2023 study, for example, reported that researchers identified anti-cancer compounds from porcupine bezoar extract: 

But this is not the only study to report positive results of potentially beneficial pharmacological   compounds found in some porcupine bezoars.


Porcupine populations in Indonesia, Malaysia and Singapore, have plummeted in recent years (five species inhabit this region). Increased demand for porcupine bezoar is suspected to be the leading causes of overhunting. Undoubtedly, this has contributed to an upsurge of poaching porcupines for bezoars, meat, trading activities in west and central Africa, putting the continent’s porcupine populations at further risk of dangerous declines (three species of porcupines exists in Africa including the Crested porcupine, or African Crested porcupine (Hystrix cristata), the Cape porcupine, or South African porcupine (Hystrix africaeaustralis), and the African brush-tailed porcupine (Atherurus africanus). 


In August 2021, Traffic International investigators discovered bezoars of Old World porcupines in Cameroon, West Africa were a newly traded product. The buyers, say researchers, were mainly to East and Southeast Asian nationals as well as Cameroon traditional medicine practitioners (Chinese nationals, for example, have had a presence throughout the African continent generally as a result of vast infrastructure projects sponsored by The People’s Republic of China). This transaction normally takes place covertly although currently, such sales are not illegal; perhaps because porcupines are considered non-threatened Class C bushmeat species in Cameroon and in neighboring Republic of Congo.


The emerging trade was also discovered to be present in neighboring Republic of Congo (RoC). In September 2021, conservationists reported that the African brush-tailed porcupine (Atherurus africanus), a common bushmeat species in the region, which had not previously been identified as a source of bezoars for the Asian market, were being traded in the south-west Republic of the Congo (RoC).


From September 2020 to June 2021, visiting conservationists/researchers discovered signs of the trade in South-west (RoC) by interviewing local bushmeat sellers near the town of Dolisie, the country's third largest city and an important commercial center. The sellers confirmed the occasional presence of bezoars in porcupines and the researchers were offered the opportunity to purchase a bezoar for the price of USD 36 per gram.


No consensus exists among experts whether the pursuit of porcupine bezoars is a by-product of the porcupine trade in Cameroon and the RoC, or a newly emerging trend that will increase the demand for African porcupines, or perhaps a bit of both. But at this stage this is irrelevant; a Pandora’s Box has been blasted wide open.


There have been documented instances of the International Wildlife Trade (IWT) online in several African countries, predominantly on classified/ listings platforms. This trade can be difficult to regulate due to the anonymity that the internet provides sellers and the fact that legislation relating to wildlife has often been written to prevent wildlife trade in physical markets rather than online markets.


Finding a bezoar is basically potluck as only a small percentage of killed porcupines contain the valuable stone. The fear is that indiscriminate disembowelment of thousands of porcupines is taking place without the discovery of a single bezoar. However, the animal’s meat and quills are also of monetary value.


The economic rewards are too lucrative to ignore. In 2018, bezoar buyers were paying the equivalent of more than 150 Euros per bezoar following year, it was reported that several ounces of bezoar material can command thousands of US dollars 2020, the mean adjusted price per gram was reported to be 151.8 USD

Porcupines act as ecosystem engineers. Their disturbance of the soil whilst foraging helps to break down larger dead inorganic matter such as dead plants, leaves, twigs, branches, bark, etc. In addition, they alter plant community dynamics through selective herbivory and disturbance activity. Their foraging behavior also helps to transport food and nutrients from tree canopies to the forest floor by way of dropped branches and large volumes of organic litter. Foraging behavior can also affect fire regimes. Porcupines promote rare and endangered bulbs and help maintain biodiversity.


The nexus between bioprospecting and biodiversity raises important questions: can wildlife conservation and biomedical research, for example, cooperate for the benefit of biodiversity and humanity? We know from the rise of pandemic and epidemic causing-zoonotic diseases such as Covid 19, Ebola Hemorrhagic Fever (EHF), and HIV-AIDS, which combined have killed tens of millions of people over the past generation, that wildlife health/environmental health is inextricably linked with human health (Ebola alone has also killed thousands of Lowland gorillas in Eastern D.R. Congo). But can the discoveries made from bioprospecting, for example, benefit wildlife conservation in helping to bolster the numbers of rapidly declining populations of species at risk?


It took 23-years, less than a generation, for the pangolin to become the world’s most illegally trafficked animal. Sadly, the emerging porcupine bezoar “rush” in Africa (including the quest for inexpensive bushmeat), and its established counterpart in Asia appears to be on the same trajectory.


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