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Sunda pangolin © Bjorn Olesen

Sunda pangolin © Bjorn Olesen

Pangolins

The world's most trafficked mammals

Species

The world is finally waking up to the plight of the pangolin. It is the most trafficked non-human mammal on the planet and until relatively recently was one of the most neglected.  An annual awareness day – World Pangolin Day – is helping to shine the spotlight on these remarkable animals.

Today, it is no secret that the world’s one and only scaly mammal is under severe threat from illegal wildlife trade, which is driven by demand for its meat and scales, largely though not exclusively among Asian consumers.

All eight of the world’s pangolin species are threatened with extinction, but the critically endangered Sunda pangolin has been particularly hard hit and is haemorrhaging numbers throughout its range in Southeast Asia.

Fascinating facts about pangolins

    70 million

    The estimated number of insects that a pangolin consumes every year.

    Pangolin rescued by rangers in Liberia. © Josh Kempinski / Fauna & Flora

    Pangolin rescued by rangers in Liberia. © Josh Kempinski / Fauna & Flora

    Roll up, roll up!

    When threatened, pangolins curl into a ball (their name derives from the Malay word pengguling, meaning ‘thing that rolls up’). 

    25 cm

    The length of a Sunda pangolin’s tongue when fully extended – a useful adaptation for reaching ants and termites deep in their nests. 

    Close-up of Sunda pangolin scales and claws.

    Close-up of Sunda pangolin scales and claws. © Tim Knight

    Scale models

    Pangolins are the world’s only truly scaly mammals (armadillos are covered in bony plates, not overlapping scales).

    No chewing

    Pangolins are edentates, meaning that they have no teeth. 

What’s special about pangolins?

It’s no surprise that pangolins look prehistoric. These extraordinary creatures have been around for 80 million years. Toothless wonders sporting a protective cloak of razor-sharp scales, they are perfectly adapted to a life that revolves around eating vast quantities of ants and termites while avoiding being eaten themselves.

Strong claws dig out their food from sturdy, sometimes concrete-hard, nests. A long, sticky tongue reaches deep into crevices and mops up insects like a strip of animated flypaper. A pangolin’s prehensile tail helps it to climb trees but also comes in handy during motherhood when the scaly infants hitch a ride. Pangolins also have an effective defence mechanism: they roll up into an armoured, predator-proof ball.

Are pangolins anteaters?

Well, yes and no. Pangolins are also known as scaly anteaters, but the name is misleading. Although covered in scales and fond of eating ants, they are actually more closely related to dogs and cats. Pangolins may look superficially like armadillos, but anteaters from the New World (the Americas) and Old World (Asia and Africa) evolved completely separately, following parallel paths to their similar specialised diet.

Temminck's pangolin. © David Brossard (www.flickr.com/string_bass_dave/)

Temminck's pangolin. © David Brossard (www.flickr.com/string_bass_dave/)

Temminck's pangolin can walk on its hind legs, using its tail as a counter-weight.

Pangolin family life

Pangolins are mostly silent. They communicate by scent-marking and use smell to locate or avoid each other. Pangolins are born with all their scales, which can number up to a thousand. Infant pangolins ride on their mother’s tail for around three months. African pangolins usually have only one baby, whereas Asian pangolins have been seen with up to three young.

Where do pangolins live?

Pangolins are found in Africa and Asia. They are actually eight species rolled into one. Pangolin habitat varies from species to species and ranges from tropical rainforest to dry desert and savannah. There are four species of pangolin in Asia and four in Africa. Fauna & Flora is actively involved in protecting five of these:

Five pangolins on Fauna & Flora's radar

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

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

    Sunda pangolin

    In common with other Asian pangolins, Sunda pangolins have bristles that protrude between their scales. They are found throughout Southeast Asia, but are extremely rare in most parts of their range due to poaching. Already classified as Critically Endangered on the IUCN Red List, Sunda pangolins are predicted to decline by a further 80% within the next two decades unless urgent action is taken.

    Black-bellied pangolin. © Angiolo / Adobe Stock

    Black-bellied pangolin. © Angiolo / Adobe Stock

    Black-bellied pangolin

    A small tree-climbing pangolin with black face and underparts and an extremely long, muscular tail, the black-bellied or long-tailed pangolin is active by day, feeding mainly on tree ants, but is secretive and not easily spotted. Shyer than other pangolins, it is quick to roll into a tight, protective ball when threatened. Its range extends from Sierra Leone to the Democratic Republic of Congo.

    White-bellied pangolin. © Ellie Stones

    White-bellied pangolin. © Ellie Stones

    White-bellied pangolin

    Equally at home in trees or on the ground, this small, mainly nocturnal pangolin is characterised by pale underparts and an abundance of thin scales that call to mind a fir cone. It emerges at night from a self-dug hole and feeds mostly on the forest floor, foraging for termites among the leaf litter. It is found across West and Central Africa, as far east as West Kenya and as far south as Angola.

    Temminck's pangolin. © Jen Guyton / Nature Picture Library

    Temminck's pangolin. © Jen Guyton / Nature Picture Library

    Temminck's pangolin

    This compact, ground-dwelling pangolin is the only one of Africa’s four species found in relatively arid areas of East and Southern Africa (hence one of its alternative names, Cape pangolin) and as far north as Chad and Sudan. It forages very slowly and deliberately, and has a habit of walking on its back legs, using its broad, relatively short tail as a counterweight.

    Giant pangolin. © Fauna & Flora

    Giant pangolin. © Fauna & Flora

    Giant pangolin

    The heavyweights of the pangolin world, giant pangolins tip the scales at well over 30 kilos, as much as the average ten-year-old child. Giant pangolin footprints resemble those of a small elephant. Like prehistoric ankylosaurs, giant pangolins can use their powerful tail like a club to defend themselves from predators. They consume up to two litres of insects in a single night and can dig burrows up to 40 metres long.

What are the main threats to pangolins?

The main cause of pangolin population declines is poaching for their meat and scales, driven particularly by demand from China and Vietnam. Pangolin meat is consumed as a sign of status in upmarket restaurants. Pangolin scales are used as an ingredient in traditional medicine to treat a wide range of ailments, from cancer to acne. There is no scientific evidence for their effectiveness, which is not surprising as their scales are made of keratin – the same stuff as fingernails.

More than a million pangolins are estimated to have been taken from the wild since 2000. Asia’s four pangolin species have taken the biggest hit, but the impact is global. Recently there has been a massive increase in the volume of African pangolin species recorded in the illegal trade. We don’t know how many pangolins are left in the wild, but traffickers are increasingly targeting African species – a sure sign that Asian pangolin populations have crashed to the point where demand cannot be met locally.

The past few years have witnessed seizures of pangolin scales in industrial quantities. In August 2021, a shipment weighing an eye-watering 17 tonnes was intercepted in Nigeria, a notorious hub for wildlife trafficking.

Traditionally, Africa’s pangolins were poached mainly for subsistence, but also for their scales and other body parts, which have cultural uses. This harvest was rarely on a commercial scale, but there is increasing evidence that the continent’s pangolins are now being hoovered up in unprecedented numbers to supply not only the Asian market, but also wealthy African consumers.

Indiscriminate snaring, particularly in Southeast Asia, also poses a huge threat to pangolins even when they are not directly targeted.

How can we help to save pangolins?

At Fauna & Flora we are working to protect the remaining pangolin populations – either directly or indirectly – at many of our project sites in Africa and Asia.

As part of our increased efforts to protect pangolins across our project sites in Africa, Fauna & Flora and our partners are not only gathering crucial data on trade and consumption, but also carrying out biomonitoring activities to detect the presence of these animals and track their movements in the wild, in order to learn more about them. Our work ranges from pangolin tagging in Liberia and Guinea to camera-trap surveys in South Sudan and the development of a national action plan for pangolins in Kenya.

In Southeast Asia, Fauna & Flora is helping to reduce poaching and trafficking of Sunda pangolins from Sumatra’s Kerinci Seblat National Park, thanks to our long-running work to protect Sumatran tigers with our local partners in Indonesia; the international wildlife trade gangs involved in tiger poaching are often the same people who target pangolins. Disrupting these networks saves pangolin as well as tigers. Elsewhere in Asia, our illegal wildlife trade programme is protecting pangolins in Myanmar, Cambodia and Vietnam.

“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 Fauna & Flora and our partners as we seek to extend and strengthen practical, on-the-ground actions to protect pangolin populations at our project sites around the world.”

Lindsey Harris

Head of Wildlife Trade

“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 Fauna & Flora and our partners as we seek to extend and strengthen practical, on-the-ground actions to protect pangolin populations at our project sites around the world.”

Lindsey Harris

Head of Wildlife Trade

Sunda pangolin. © Edwin Tan (Schmike).

Save the world’s pangolins

Pangolins are being killed on an industrial scale. Over a million are estimated to have been taken from the wild by poachers since 2000.
Together, we can combat pangolin trafficking. Please support our efforts to protect these endearing animals. Unless we act now, we will lose pangolins forever.

 

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Sunda pangolin. © Edwin Tan (Schmike).