The Pangolin may not be as well known as the more popular species, but it is just as important to the ecosystem and is also under threat
Some call the pangolin a scaly anteater; others say it looks like walking pinecone. In fact, the pangolin is unrelated to either the anteater or a woody fruit. It belongs to its own order, Pholidota.
What is a Pangolin?
There are eight species of pangolins. Four of them live in the woodlands and savannas of southern, central, and eastern Africa: the black-bellied (Phataginus tetradactyla), white-bellied (Phataginus tricuspis), giant ground (Smutsia gigantea) and Temminck’s ground pangolin (Smutsia temminckii). Four other species live in Asia.
All pangolins are covered in overlapping scales made of keratin—the same protein that forms human fingernails and hair. The scales grow like hair throughout a pangolin’s life; they are filed down naturally when a pangolin digs a burrow, or tunnels through soil to find a meal of ants or termites. Like anteaters, the pangolin uses its long, sticky tongue to reach insects far beneath the earth’s surface. Emphasis on long: the pangolin’s tongue, when fully extended, is longer than the animal’s entire body.
The name pangolin comes from the Malay word “penggulung,” which means “something that rolls up.” When a pangolin feels threatened, it curls itself into a tight, scaly ball to protect its tender underside. While this may help fend off predators such as leopards and hyenas, it can’t guard against the pangolin’s greatest enemy: people.
Why is this species in jeopardy?
Though unknown to most people, the pangolin is all too familiar among hunters and wildlife traffickers. In Asia, pangolin meat is considered a great delicacy, and pangolin scales are believed to have magical curative powers. As Asian species become scarcer due to poaching, traffickers are turning to Africa to meet demand, and conservation experts say pangolin numbers are dwindling at a perilous rate. It’s hard for researchers to cite exact figures because the pangolin is notoriously reclusive and hard to track. But this much is known: the pangolin is now the most trafficked of all mammals.
Although all eight species of pangolins are protected under national and international laws, poaching will continue until demand diminishes. That’s the harsh truth.
What can be done to protect it?
As with other endangered species, education is the key. It’s especially crucial in the case of pangolins, who lack the fan base of Africa’s marquee animals, such as elephants and lions. Organizations like World Wildlife Fund and TRAFFIC have teamed up to protect these mammals by “trying to reduce demand for illegal wildlife products.” They are also working with different governments to help stop poaching and get laws passed for crimes committed against wildlife. People around the world need to learn about these remarkable creatures. They need to learn, too, about the ignorance and greed that fuel the “pangolin market.” Only then will pangolins have hope for survival.
Will you help give a voice to the pangolin before it’s too late?
Contributed by Nikela Volunteer Katharine Colton