CHICAGO — Animal enthusiasts across the globe on Saturday will celebrate the ninth annual World Pangolin Day, designated to help protect what is believed to be the most illegally trafficked mammal on Earth.

Yet the festivities come in the wake of some bad press for this already at-risk animal. While research isn’t at all conclusive, some scientists in China have preliminarily named the highly poached pangolin as the possible transmitter of coronavirus to humans, potentially linking the rare and enigmatic creature to a public health epidemic that has killed more than a thousand globally and sickened 15 in the United States as of Thursday.

Now those working to save this intriguing, scale-covered mammal fear that anxiety over the new virus that originated in Wuhan, China, could further threaten the pangolin, whose eight species native to Asia and Africa range from vulnerable to critically endangered, according to the International Union for Conservation of Nature.

“You can get an overreaction, that’s a possibility, that if the right information isn’t provided there would be a growing fear of pangolins out there, no matter where they are,” said Bill Zeigler, senior vice president of animal programs at the Brookfield Zoo, near Chicago.

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The Brookfield Zoo is among the few institutions in the United States that care for pangolins, which first arrived there in 2016. The gentle, reclusive animal seems to resemble an anteater, snake and armadillo all in one. It is the only mammal covered in an armor of keratin scales, known to roll up in a ball as its main protection against predators.

The zoo now houses a dozen white-bellied tree pangolins, a species indigenous to Africa. A male named Biggie is on display in the exhibit “Habitat Africa! The Forest.” The others are kept in private for breeding, zoo officials said.

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Along with six other institutions, the zoo launched the Pangolin Consortium several years ago to help study and protect this lesser-known animal.

“This is a group of species that very little is known about,” Zeigler said. “Until recently we knew little about their reproductive physiology, how they communicate with one another. How do they meet? How do males and females find one another to breed? Can they survive in disturbed habitats?”

Although internationally protected, the pangolin is illegally hunted for its prized meat as well as its scales, which are purported to cure a litany of ailments in the traditional medicine of various cultures. A report released earlier this week by the Wildlife Justice Commission warned the recent increase in trafficking of pangolins has reached “unprecedented levels.”

Citing preliminary genetic testing, researchers at a Chinese university earlier this month suggested the pangolin could be a “potential intermediate host” of coronavirus, possibly spreading the disease from bats to humans.

Many independent scientists have questioned these findings, saying more data are needed to draw any definitive conclusions.

The theory, though, ignited a spectrum of reactions on social media.

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“Kill them all if we wanna stay alive … I love animals but that thing gotta go,” someone commented on the Twitter page of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora, a multigovernment treaty designed to protect vulnerable wildlife.

However, some expressed hope that poaching might decrease if the demand for pangolin meat and scales dwindled over potential coronavirus fears.

“Humans need to learn (a) lesson … animals don’t exist just for our consumption or abuse,” read another tweet.

Brookfield Zoo has various activities planned for World Pangolin Day, including several talks about the pangolin hosted by animal care experts. Kids can make pangolins out of pine cones the shape and texture mimicking the animal’s scaly frame — at the Hamill Family Play Zoo.

Zoo officials are also asking the public to sign a petition in support of Illinois legislation that would ban the sale, trade and distribution of pangolin products statewide.

The American public has only become aware of threats against the pangolin in the last decade or so, Zeigler said. But the animal’s popularity appears to have soared in that time, with dozens of YouTube videos of the mysterious creature getting hundreds of thousands of page views. A pangolin debuted in a 2016 episode of the PBS cartoon “Wild Kratts,” rescued by the show’s protagonists before nearly becoming an ingredient in a health food smoothie.

The pangolin has emerged as a poster child of sorts for the conservation movement, Zeigler said, in part due to its curious appearance and demeanor that many find adorable.

“If you’ve ever seen a pangolin pup on the back of its mother, this is just too cute of an animal to not be concerned about,” he said. “This is an animal that you look at and go, ‘My God, how does this animal survive out there?’ We need to protect it. It’s cuddly. It’s cute.”

Two cases of coronavirus have been confirmed in Illinois, though both patients — a woman who recently traveled to Wuhan and her husband, who contracted it from her — were discharged from the hospital to home isolation earlier this month. Fifteen coronavirus cases had been confirmed across the country, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Internationally, the virus has infected about 60,000 people, with more than 1,300 deaths.

Most health experts in the United States, however, say the risk of contracting coronavirus here is very low, and the flu is still a far more dangerous and ubiquitous threat.

Zeigler cautioned against alarm at any initial research connecting the pangolin to coronavirus, arguing that more definitive studies are necessary. He added that he hopes for a coronavirus vaccine as well as other methods to counter the person-to-person spread of the disease.

“There is the concern out there for the future of the pangolin,” he said. “My hope is that we’re able to create a vaccine and protect people, and stop the spread of this particular event. And at the same time, maintain and protect pangolins.”

©2020 Chicago Tribune