Scientists worry pangolins' coronavirus link could be a new threat to their dwindling population

Animal experts worry for pangolins’ future

The pangolin, once called "the most trafficked mammal in the world," is facing another threat over its potential link to the coronavirus. Scientists working around the clock to save the species worry that Chinese researchers who labeled pangolins as the possible origin of the outbreak may be stoking public fear and damaging conservation efforts.

Bill Zeigler, a top researcher at the Brookfield Zoo's Chicago Zoological Society, shared his concerns over what accepting the research without proper support could do to the public's perception of the endangered scaly mammal.

"My concern is, if we don't word it right and people become afraid of pangolins, they may go out and if they find a pangolin in the wild – in which case there is no real issue there, it's not a danger to you as far as transferring a disease – they would kill it anyway, because they're afraid of it," he told CBS News' Tom Hanson.

Pangolins have long been prized in China for their meat and their scales, which are believed to have medicinal value. As a result, nearly half a million are illegally poached per year, causing some pangolin populations around the world to drop to critical levels.

The Brookfield Zoo in Illinois is among the most successful of seven U.S. groups working to breed pangolins. They facilitated nine births over the last four years.

Zeigler joined a global chorus of scientists questioning the findings of Chinese scientists.

"What they found was a coronavirus that was very, very similar to what they're seeing now coming out of Wuhan, and so there is that possibility," he told CBS News' Hanson. "That research still needs to be vetted or have peer review before anyone can say at all that that is where it comes from."

Despite the new threat, Zeigler and other conservationists' mission remains the same: to "build the science behind the reproductive physiology of these animals" and to hopefully one day establish a sustainable population in North America.