World Pangolin Day will be celebrated on 21 February and we are using this as an opportunity to raise awareness about these fascinating animals and make you aware of their plight.
Pangolins are rarely seen and most people have never even heard of them. What do you know about them?
In this post we share information snippets to help you get your facts straight about the most trafficked, and most threatened animal on Earth.
Before we get started though, watch this short video for an introduction to … the pangolin!
1. Only mammal with scales
The Pangolin, or scaly anteater, is a mammal with plate-like scales covering its skin – the only known mammal with this type of adaptation.
The scales are made of keratin, the same protein that makes up our own hair and nails. Numerous scientific studies1. have proven that keratinous body parts of other animals such as pangolin scales and rhino horn do not possess any medicinal or curative properties.
2. Eight species
There are eight species of pangolin – four species in Africa and four species in Asia. These eight species comprise their very own Order: Pholidota and one extant Family, Manidae.
At first it was believed pangolin are related to anteaters, sloths and armadillos, however, newer genetic evidence suggests their closest living relatives are true Carnivores (Order Carnivora).
Virtually no information is available on population levels of any species of pangolin. The IUCN do however indicate that all species are in decline, with the Asian species leading the trend.
Clicking on the map below will give you a better view of the distribution and conservation status of the 8 species of pangolin.
3. Roll-up in defense
When threatened, pangolins roll up in a tight, almost impenetrable ball to protect their delicate undersides. Their scales have very sharp edges that can slice the skin of predators. The English name pangolin is derived from the Malay word pengguling which roughly translates to “something that roles up”.
Pangolins are insectivores, feeding mainly on ants and termites. They can consume 70 million ants per year!
Pangolins eyes are protected by thick lids and they can voluntarily close off their ears and nostrils to keep insects out while they are feeding.
Pangolin do not have teeth and therefore cannot chew. Instead, stomach contents are ground with gravel and keratinous spines located in the stomach to aid digestion.
What pangolins do have are long sticky tongues which they use to catch the insects. A pangolin’s fully extended tongue can be more than 40 centimetres, longer than its entire body length!
Sharp claws are used for burrowing into ant and termite mounds, as well as climbing.
5. Most trafficked animal on Earth
Sadly pangolins are the most trafficked species on Earth. An estimated 100 000 pangolins are captured every year in Africa and Asia, and most of them end up in China. It is estimated that more than 1 million pangolins were killed over the past decade.
In Africa pangolins are largely hunted as bushmeat, with their scales and other body parts occasionally used in rituals. The primary sources of demand for pangolins are however Vietnam and China, where the flesh is considered a delicacy and their scales, blood and other body parts are used in traditional Chinese medicines. This despite the fact that it has been scientifically proven not to hold any health benefits.
It is estimated that pangolin sales account for 20 percent of the total wildlife black market. Human greed and ignorance are eating these fascinating animals into extinction.
All eight species are now considered threatened with extinction. (Click on the image for a better view).
6. Protected by CITES
All 8 species of Asian and African pangolins are listed under Appendix II of CITES (the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora). This means trade is regulated and monitored under CITES and that permits are required from exporting countries for any trade activity. Before a permit can be issued, the exporting country must determine that this activity will have no detriment to the wild population.
The CITES authority also passed a zero export quota for the four Asian species, banning all commercial trade in these species. Although permits are required for the four African species, a zero export quota has not been passed, which means commercial trade is not prohibited.
Pangolins are also protected in their range states by domestic wildlife laws. However, despite all these measures, pangolin populations are declining and illicit hunting and poaching continues to take place. And because of the plummeting numbers of the Asian species of pangolins, poachers are now targeting the African species.
Dan Challender, Co-Chair of the IUCN SSC Pangolin Specialist Group, comments: “Our global strategy to halt the decline of the world’s pangolins needs to be urgently implemented. A vital first step is for the Chinese and Vietnamese governments to conduct an inventory of their pangolin scale stocks and make this publicly available to prove that wild-caught pangolins are no longer supplying the commercial trade.”
In February 2012 the IUCN started a Species Survival Commission (SSC) Pangolin Specialist Group (PangolinSG). The group’s mission is to:
Be a global voice for pangolins by working to advance worldwide knowledge and understanding of pangolins, their conservation, natural history and ecology and to catalyze action to meet these needs.”
A range of IUCN-SSC PangolinSG endorsed research and conservation projects are currently under way both in Africa and Asia, but more research is needed. And more ACTION is needed.
World Pangolin Day is celebrated the third Saturday in February. Watch this short video produced by Earth Touch in 2014, and let us celebrate this unique species and protect it from the human race.
1. Yemen acts to halt rhino horn daggers; scientific tests fail to show rhino horn effective as medicine. 1983. Environmentalist Volume 3, Issue 2. p153. http://dx.doi.org/10.1007/BF02240165. Kluwer Academic Publishers
A Horny Story. Accessed 18 February 2015: http://www.thestar.com.my/Lifestyle/Health/2010/09/19/A-horny-story/
The IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. Version 2014.3. <www.iucnredlist.org>. Downloaded on 17 February 2015.
BBC News Magazine. http://www.bbc.com/news/magazine-30833685. Accessed 17 February 2015.
Project Pangolin. http://pangolins.org/2012/02/18/25-facts-about-pangolins/. Accessed 17 February 2015.
The Telegraph. http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/earth/wildlife/11374800/Pangolins-13-facts-about-the-worlds-most-hunted-animal.html. Accessed 17 February 2015.
IUCN SSC Pangolin Specialist Group website. http://www.pangolinsg.org/ Accessed 19 February 2015.
Customs today. http://customstoday.com.pk/hong-kong-customs-seizes-contraband-1-tonne-of-pangolin-scales-from-shipping-container/. Accessed 19 February 2015.