Animal trafficking is one of the most significant threats to wildlife around the world. However, there is one animal that is threatened in particular by this illegal trafficking. Over one million individuals have been trafficked since 2000. Of the eight species of this animal, every single one of them has been classified as threatened with extinction by the IUCN, with the four found in Asia in the most immediate danger. The pangolin is one of the most bizarre, and now increasingly most threatened, family of animals going around. Strap yourselves in, because this is one weird family!
The eight species of pangolin, or scaly anteater, exist in Asia and Africa across three different genera (Manis, Phantaginus, and Smutsia). The most distinguishing feature of these nocturnal animals is their scales. The scales cover the pangolins from their head all the way down to the tip of the tail but are absent from their undersides. These scales are made of keratin, which happens to be the same material that our hair and nails are made from. These scales give them excellent protection against predators. When threatened, the pangolin rolls up into a ball, hiding their vulnerable underbelly away and making it much tougher to get to. This action of rolling into a ball is actually where the pangolins get their names from! The word ‘pangolin’ comes from the Malay word “penggulung”, meaning “roller” (Pangolin Conservation).
Hearing that they roll into a ball, and have an armoured hide, you might be reminded of another animal: the armadillo. You’d be forgiven for assuming then that they might be the closest relatives of the pangolins. With their long snouts, tongues, claws, and even armour plating, they do look fairly similar. However, the reality is very different. In fact, the closest relatives of the pangolin are actually animals within the order Carnivora (Arkive). Yeah, that’s right. Cats, dogs, bears, and seals are in fact the closest living relatives of the pangolin. Hopefully, by now your starting to get a pretty good idea of how weird these animals are. But, I’ve got news for you though. We’re only just getting started.
As long as a pangolin has a steady supply of ants and termites, they can survive in a surprisingly vast array of habitats. These include brush, tropical rainforest, grassland, and even agricultural areas. Some pangolins have adapted to a life predominantly up in the trees, semi-prehensile tails to assist them climbing. Other pangolins, such as the aptly named ground pangolin (Smutsia temminckii), spend their entire lives on the ground (or even under it in some cases)! As long as they have a food supply, ground to burrow into, and places to hide, pangolins seem to be pretty happy!
Let’s talk physiology for a moment. Specifically, the tongue and some of their internals, because we're about to rock your world. Not much is known about pangolins in general, but this is some of the stuff we DO know... The pangolins tongue is sticky (to pick up insects) and long. So long that, when fully extended, the tongue of a pangolin is longer than its head and ENTIRE body combined. It is so long that the tongue has to be contained within a cavity in the pangolins chest. Within this cavity, the tongue is anchored close to the last set of ribs… which also happens to be near the pelvis. Yeah... We told you it was going to get weird. But the pangolin has no teeth, so how does it properly digest the roughly 70 million insects that it ingests on a yearly basis. Two ways, in fact. One, they ingest a ton of small rocks. Secondly, their stomach has a whole lot of inward-pointing keratinous spines (Arkive). These two features (one behavioural and one physical) work together to grind, mash, and break down the insects, easing digestion.
Ultimately though, pangolins are very secretive animals. Scientists know barely anything about pangolins and their ‘pangopups’ (yes, that’s the actual name for juvenile pangolins)! They are so difficult to study that We don't even know how long they live for. So why then are these bizarre animals quite so endangered?
The main reason for their endangered status is the illegal trafficking industry. Sadly, Pangolins are the MOST trafficked animal in the world. What does that mean? It’s been estimated that over 1 million pangolins have been illegally trafficked since the year 2000! In fact, it’s been estimated that between 2011 and 2013 (based on reported seizures) somewhere between 116,990-233,980 pangolins were killed as a part of the illegal trade. It is thought that this potentially only illustrates “as little as 10 percent of the actual volume of pangolins in [the] illegal wildlife trade” (WWF). A recent publication on African pangolins revealed that “2.7 million pangolins might be hunted annually in Central Africa” (Carrington, 2017). Those are some insane numbers! No wonder these guys are so endangered. No animal would be able to sustain that many individuals being taken from the wild or being killed, let alone an animal that is so secretive that we have no idea how many of these species actual survive in the wild. But the question remains: why are they so in demand?
There are several reasons why pangolins are such a popular 'commodity' for the illegal wildlife trade. In Asia, they are sought after for traditional Chinese and Vietnamese medicine. It is believed that dried pangolin scales will “stimulate lactation in women, correct menstruation problems, reduce swelling, increase blood circulation, and even cure cancer” (Pangolin Conservation). As you may recall though, pangolins scales are made from keratin, so it’s practically like saying that eating our own hair or nails would do all of those things. Scientifically, their scales hold no medical value.
In Africa, it is a somewhat similar story. The trade is primarily scale driven. They are thought to provide a surprisingly large mix of benefits. Within certain cultures, it is believed that mixing the scales with the bark of certain trees they can neutralise witchcraft and evil spirits; when buried near a man’s door they give an interested woman power over him; smoke from their scales improves cattle health, keeps lions away, and cures things such as nosebleeds. Finally, some tribes believe that pangolin sightings indicate a coming drought and that the only way to stop a drought from hitting is to kill the animal (African Wildlife Foundation). You can begin to understand though why locals would go out and try to utilise these capabilities.
Another driver of the pangolin trade is The demand for meat from within Africa and Asia. Pangolin meat is considered a delicacy and is relied upon heavily for bushmeat In Africa. Particularly in China and Vietnam, the eating of pangolins can be considered a symbol of wealth. Some restaurants in Hanoi have been seen to sell them for USD $250 per kilo, promising to also slit their throat at the table before adding some of the blood to wine (They believe the blood to be an aphrodisiac) (Fletcher, 2015). For a fairly demoralising view of the pangolin trade in Vietnam, check out this article from 2015. It paints a fairly bleak picture, to be sure. In Africa, again, the story is similar. However, the massive demand in Asia is seeing the threat to the African species increasing as traffickers make the most of the high demand in China and Vietnam (IUCN, 2014).
Unfortunately, due to the secretive nature of pumpkins, policing their trafficking can be extremely difficult. According to the Zoological Society of London, poachers will usually take the entire pangolin carcass with them thus leaving no trace. They’ve also been known to hide body parts within other goods, or even just pretend they’re something else entirely (for example, what was apparently shipments of charcoal have in fact been found to be similar-looking to pangolin scales). This makes enforcement incredibly difficult. However, there is hope! Education seems to be having some success in hampering the trade, as enforcement efforts bring in more and more goods. In November 2017 though, China announced officials had seized 11.9 tonnes of pangolin scales (TRAFFIC). Just the scales!! In Taiwan earlier this year, officials seized a shipment that contained over 4,000 frozen pangolins (weighing in at 13 tonnes) from Malaysia. These are some frankly insane numbers. If you keep an eye on the TRAFFIC Southeast Asia Facebook page, you’ll see pangolin and pangolin parts being reported all the time. The more people know about pangolins, and their trade, the more hope there is to save these wonderful animals.
Asian pangolins are now so few, that the scales and body parts of African pangolins are being shipped into Asia (in ever increasing numbers) to try and meet the demand of the traditional Chinese medicine industry (Heinrich et al, 2017). That poachers are no longer able to meet demand with Asian species is an incredibly worrying sign, and sends massive warning signals for the African pangolin populations. And with good reason! According to the IUCN Pangolin Specialist Group, there is a huge volume of African pangolin scales heading to Asia, thought to be in the tens of tonnes per year. That translates to tens of thousands of pangolins! Only with education and cooperation from/with organisations and governments can this issue even begin to be tackled properly.
One, final issue, that inhibits the ongoing survival of pangolin species is an almost complete inability to be kept in captivity. Under normal circumstances, zoos and organisations across the world would work together to establish a captive population through breeding programs that would be permanently safe from poachers. However, pangolins seem to be almost impossible to keep in captivity. Only six zoos across the world currently house pangolins (Gallagher, 2018); with the specialised nature of their diet and habitat requirements, the majority of captive pangolins do not survive for long (Arkive). Most wild individuals kept in captivity die within 200 days, and the average being under five years. Coupled with this issue, is an extraordinarily high mortality rate in wild pangolin capture. It is thought that for each pangolin that survives capture, and subsequent transport to captive environments, six more of them will die in the process (Pepper, 2017). On top of that, they are almost impossible to breed in captivity (Pepper, 2017). Heartbreaking!
The story of the pangolins has so far been bleak, depressing, heartbreaking. Take your pick of gloomy adjectives. Yet despite their ongoing battle, they remain unknown. It is for this very reason that it is so important to share their story. Let people know about these enigmatic, bizarre critters. Because despite what looks to be one hell of an uphill task to destroy the illegal trade of pangolins, there is hope. There are organisations, people, and groups from all over the world coming together to change their story. In our next post, we’ll take a look at just some of these inspiring stories and efforts of those seeking to save the world's most trafficked animal.
Heinrich, S., Wittman, T.A., Ross, J.V., Shepherd, C.R., Challender, D.W.S., and Cassey, P. (2017). The Global Trafficking of Pangolins: A comprehensive summary of seizures and trafficking routes from 2010–2015. TRAFFIC, Southeast Asia Regional Office, Petaling Jaya, Selangor, Malaysia