The Plight of the Pangolin

Pop Quiz:

  1. What is the world’s most trafficked/poached animal?
  2. What is the only mammal in the world that has scales?
  3. What do you get when you cross an anteater with a pinecone?

The answer to all three questions is: the pangolin! Meet the cutest, weirdest, most threatened critter you’ve never heard of.

A sentient pinecone? A walking artichoke? No - a ground pangolin in South Africa. Image by David Brossard.

Pangolin defending itself from lions. Image by Sandip Kumar.

Pangolins are smallish nocturnal mammals that sort of look like armadillos or anteaters, but are covered in tough scales. When I say “smallish”, I mean ranging from around 30 cm (1 foot) long in the smallest of the eight species, to over a meter (3 feet) long in the largest. Fours species are found in Africa, and four in Asia. Their name comes from the Malay word “penggulung,” which means “roller” – pangolins roll up in a ball to defend themselves from predators. Their scales are hardened keratin (same material as fingernails and hair) with sharp edges, which can be pretty daunting to big cats and other potential predators! Some pangolins also use their big tails as weapons, swinging them around to fend off predators and, in mating season, competing males. The scales, like a porcupine’s quills or a hedgehog’s spines, are essentially hair modified to the extreme. When baby pangolins (or pangopups) are born, the scales are soft, but harden up over the next few days. Once the pup is old enough to leave the burrow, it rides around on mom’s tail.

Mom's butt is the best place for a nap. Image by Firdia Lisnawati via Huffington Post.

Those huge front feet are more useful for digging and looking adorable than they are for walking. Image by Maria Diekmann via the US Fish and Wildlife Service.

One of my personal favorite things about pangolins is that they’re mostly bipedal, meaning that they walk primarily on their hind legs, and they hold their front feet up like they’re anxiously waiting to ask you on a date. Those front feet ­come with huge claws for digging up ants and termites, which make up the majority of pangolins’ diets (hence their other name: “scaly anteater”). To help get hold of all those tasty bugs, pangolins have incredibly long tongues that they coat with sticky saliva. Other long-tongued animals have their tongues attached to the hyoid bone in the throat, and store them curled up in a spiral, but not pangolins. Instead, their tongues (which can be up to 40 cm long in larger pangolins) go all the way back into their body! In a human, that would be the equivalent of having your tongue retract into your lower ribs. Pangolins also don’t have teeth, so they “chew” with spiny extensions into their throats and small stones in their stomachs. They are truly and wonderfully bizarre, inside and out.

A de-scaled pangolin for cooking in Cameroon. Image by Eric Freyssinge.

Pangolin-scale armor presented to King George III of England in 1820.

Unfortunately, certain people seem to think that pangolins are much more valuable dead than they are alive. In parts of Africa, pangolin is a fairly popular bush meat, and the scales are used in Ghanaian traditional medicine. It’s even worse in Asia – particularly China and Vietnam – where pangolin meat is considered a delicacy, and their scales are in high demand for use in medicines and health tonics that are advertised as increasing blood circulation, helping with lactation, and even curing cancer. It’s all nonsense, of course; many scientific studies have revealed that there are no health benefits whatsoever from consuming keratin (also an issue with rhino horn). Scales are also used in fashion accessories, and live pangolins sometimes appear in the exotic pet trade, although they often don’t do very well in captivity. None of this stops poachers though. Pangolins are relatively easy to collect, since their defense mechanism is to roll up into a ball, and they can fetch over $200 USD per kilogram. Just the scales can be worth almost $3,000 US per kilogram. Pangolins have been most extensively poached in southeast Asia, but the demand in China and Vietnam could lead to more hunting in Africa too. From 2004-2014, over a million pangolins were killed for profit, making it the world’s most trafficked animal. On top of all of that, pangolins are also threatened by habitat loss.

Fortunately, live pangolins have started to gain some fans and advocates, thanks to spreading information online, and major news outlets running articles about them. Pangolin trading has been outlawed worldwide by the U.N., and conservation efforts and awareness campaigns (including burning massive collections of confiscated scales and skins, not unlike ivory burnings) are taking place in countries around the world. While pangolins may not be as charismatic and endearing as elephants, rhinos, tigers, and the like, they are pretty darn cute, which is always helpful for gaining attention and sympathy.

You can help these weird, wonderful critters by supporting them through! Spread the word about them – the more people who know them and love them, the better. You can also donate to WWF and IUCN to support conservation of endangered wildlife around the world, including pangolins (links at the bottom of this page). And don’t forget to celebrate World Pangolin Day next month! It’s on February 18th.