Scaly mammals

Pangolins are among the more unique and peculiar animals that exist today. These prehistoric animals have been around for 80 million years and are the only known mammals to have skin covered with large, protective scales. They also have prehensile tails which they use to climb trees.

Sunda pangolins are found in a number of countries across Southeast Asia. Today they are extremely rare in the northern portion of their range due to poaching, and are listed as Critically Endangered on the IUCN Red List.

More than a million pangolins are estimated to have been taken from the wild since 2000, with poaching for their meat and scales, driven particularly by demand from China and Vietnam, considered to be the main cause of population declines. Pangolins are believed to be the most trafficked mammal in the world. Sadly, Sunda pangolins are predicted to decline by a further 80% within the next two decades unless urgent action is taken.

Pangolin facts

  • Pangolins can swim long distances and dig 40-metre burrows
  • Infant pangolins ride on their mothers’ tails for around three months
  • To feed, they use long claws to tear into ant and termite nests before using tongues longer than their body to lap up the insects
  • This unique combination of natural talents allows them to consume 70 million insects per year
  • When threatened they curl into a ball (hence their name – pengguling means ‘thing that rolls up’ in Malay) and rely on their virtually impenetrable armour for protection against predators
  • Pangolins are very difficult to breed or even keep alive in captivity, partly due to their specialised diet
At a glance
Manis javanica
Critically Endangered
Lao People's Democratic RepublicThailandCambodiaVietnamMalaysiaSingaporeBrunei DarussalamIndonesia

Family:

Manidae

Order:

Pholidota

Est. in the wild:

Unknown

What is a pangolin? Though its alternative name is scaly anteater these animals are actually more closely related to carnivores. The Sunda pangolin is one of four Asian species. There are also four African species.

900-1,000

Sunda pangolins are born with all their scales, which can number up to a thousand.

25 cm

Sunda pangolins can extend their tongues up to a quarter of a metre – a useful adaptation for feeding on ants.

Conservation story

Sunda pangolins are primarily poached for their meat and scales. When threatened, they do not run or attack, they curl up into a ball which allows them to be easily picked up and sold through trade networks.

Pangolin meat is often served as a delicacy in upmarket restaurants throughout Southeast Asia and China. Viewed as a status symbol, pangolins are sometimes killed at the table in front of guests to prove they are eating genuine pangolin. Some restaurants market their foetuses steeped in wine or served in soup as an aphrodisiac.

Pangolin scales are used as an ingredient in traditional Asian medicines to treat a wide range of ailments, from cancer to acne to nervousness. There is no Western scientific evidence supporting these medicinal values, which is not surprising as their scales are made of keratin – the same stuff as fingernails.

How FFI is helping to save the Sunda pangolin

Fauna & Flora International (FFI) has been leading effective on-the-ground responses to stem illegal wildlife trade for more than fifteen years. Among other efforts, we have been helping to curb poaching and trafficking of Sunda pangolins from Kerinci Seblat National Park, Sumatra.

This is an extension of FFI’s long-running work to protect Sumatran tigers from poaching and trafficking of their body parts, as the international wildlife trade gangs involved in poaching tigers are often the same individuals involved with pangolins.

To disrupt poaching networks, we are working with our partners conducting intelligence-led investigations, supporting local law enforcement and disrupting trade routes. Our Indonesia team is working incredibly hard to gather 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 is 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 Sunda pangolins where they belong: in their forest habitat and out of the hands of poachers.

“The pangolin is a unique and wonderful creature that is being trafficked on an industrial scale. Eradicating pangolin poaching and trade is a priority for FFI and our partners as we seek to extend and strengthen practical, on-the-ground actions to protect pangolin populations in Sumatra and beyond.”

Rebecca DrurySenior Technical Specialist, Wildlife Trade