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Sunda pangolin. © Jak Wonderley / Wild Wonders of China / Nature Picture Library

Sunda pangolin. © Jak Wonderley / Wild Wonders of China / Nature Picture Library

Pangolins: one of the world’s least known and most hunted animals


What is a pangolin?

Pangolins are one of the more unique and peculiar animals that exist today. This mammal is prehistoric and has been around for 80 million years. In addition to its extremely tough armour of scales, the pangolin has evolved some amazing and surprising abilities during its long history.

Contrary to what their appearance may suggest, several species of pangolins live in trees, hanging from branches using their giant tails. They can swim long distances and dig 40 metre burrows. Their habitat is highly varied, including savannah grasslands, dense woodlands, flooded, tropical and sub-tropical forest areas. Quite adorably, baby pangolins ride on their mothers’ tails for around three months.

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A white-bellied pangolin - © Ellie Stones

A white-bellied pangolin in its habitat.

To feed they use long claws to tear into insect nests before using tongues longer than their body to lap up ants and termites. This unique combination of natural talents allows them to consume 70 million insects per year. This regulates social insect populations, which is vital to the sustainability of many ecosystems.

Due to their shy and nocturnal nature, they are difficult to research and there is limited knowledge of pangolins. There is still so much we have yet to learn about these animals – we are only just starting to understand their secretive lifestyle.

The pangolin is about as aggressive as its bipedal waddle makes it look. It is completely toothless, solitary and its mechanism of defence is to roll up into a ball and wait until the danger goes away.

While this has proven effective against most predators for millions of years, when it comes to defending themselves from poachers it has had the opposite effect; when pangolins feel threatened, they don’t run or attack – they stop and curl up. This means guns, traps or training aren’t needed to poach a pangolin – they can simply be picked up.

Of the eight species of pangolin (which make up an entire taxonomic order) four are native to Africa, and four to Asia. Two are classed as Endangered and two as Critically Endangered, and all species are believed to be in decline. This is primarily due to poaching.

Temminck's Pangolin rolling up in the grass. © simoneemanphoto / Adobe Stock

Temminck's Pangolin rolling up in the grass. © simoneemanphoto / Adobe Stock

A pangolin’s defence mechanism is to roll up into a ball.

The scale of the poaching

More than a million pangolins are estimated to have been taken from the wild since 2000, with poaching for trade in Asian markets considered the main cause of population declines. This is estimated to be up to 80% in some species over the past 20 years, with a further 80% decline predicted over the next two decades.

As such, pangolins are now believed to be the most trafficked mammal in the world. The rate at which these animals are traded across international borders is staggering. Some estimates calculate that an average of approximately 100,000 pangolins are poached and shipped into China and Vietnam every year. Criminal organisations are making a fortune from moving these animals from their habitat to the marketplace. And it’s not just pangolins – other species, like the Sumatran tiger, are also victims of the same criminal networks.

Why is the pangolin poached?

Pangolins are primarily poached for their scales and meat, but almost all of their body parts are in use. This extends even to their foetuses, which – when floated in wine or soup – are believed by some to be an aphrodisiac in East Asia.

Their scales have a wide range of traditional medicinal uses throughout multiple Asian and African cultures. However, it is demand from China that is believed to be driving much of the global trade, with prices for pangolin scales increasing tenfold between 2000 and 2013. There is no Western scientific evidence to back up these uses. This is, perhaps, not surprising; pangolin scales are made of keratin – the same stuff as fingernails.

Pangolin meat is also considered a delicacy, especially in China and Vietnam. The practice of serving pangolin is often barely hidden, with many menus and restaurant staff advertising their pangolin stocks. Animals may be killed at the table in order to prove to the customer that they are consuming genuine pangolin meat.

To give you an idea of how widespread this is, IUCN estimates that more than 20,000 kilograms of scales from African pangolins destined for Asia have been seized since just 2012 – and this represents just a fraction of overall trade.

A rescued white-bellied pangolin. © Ellie Stones

A rescued white-bellied pangolin. © Ellie Stones

A rescued white-bellied pangolin being monitored before release back into the wild.

It is almost impossible to keep pangolins in zoos or breed them in captivity. Around 100 zoos have attempted to keep pangolins in captivity over the past century and a half. They have reported a mortality rate of up to 70% within one year. These animals need to be released back into the wild extremely soon after capture, or else they get too stressed and refuse to eat or drink. Consequently, every single pangolin sold on the black market is one that has been poached from the wild.

What is Fauna & Flora doing?

Fauna & Flora’s work spans more than 50 countries in Africa, Asia, Eurasia and the Americas, and we have been leading effective on-the-ground responses to stem illegal wildlife trade for more than fifteen years. One such response is our work to prevent poaching and trafficking of the Sunda pangolin from Kerinci Seblat National Park, Sumatra.

This is an extension of Fauna & Flora’s highly regarded and effective work to stem illegal killing of Sumatran tigers and trafficking of their body parts. Together with our partners, our Indonesia team is working incredibly hard to disrupt poaching networks by gathering the evidence needed for authorities to arrest and prosecute those involved in wildlife trafficking.

This work takes time and a methodical approach. They have to identify key individuals, investigate and build a case. It’s difficult work, relying on good community relations, undercover investigations, great team work and determination. Each arrest and conviction deters poaching and disrupts international trade. This saves pangolins – and the many other species being targeted.

With enough support, we could keep this tree-swinging, ball-rolling, river-swimming, tail-riding, ecosystem-sustaining mammal where it belongs: in its forest habitat and out of the hands of poachers.

Learn more about pangolins.

Black-bellied pangolin. © Angiolo / Adobe Stock

The world's most trafficked mammal

Pangolins are on the critical list – over a million are estimated to have been taken from the wild by poachers since 2000. Please support Fauna & Flora today to help stop pangolin trafficking.

Unless we act now we will lose the Sunda pangolin for ever.

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Black-bellied pangolin. © Angiolo / Adobe Stock