Common name: Pangolins
Scientific name: Pholidota
Distribution: Asia and Africa
Pangolins are solitary, primarily nocturnal animals – so there’s a good chance you aren’t too familiar with them. They look pretty cool with their scale-covered bodies, which acts like a suit of armour to protect them – but a pangolin’s biggest threat isn’t a predatory animal, it’s humans.
The name, “pangolin”, is derived from the Malay word “pengguling”, which loosely translates to “something that rolls up” – and the name is pretty literal, because that’s how they defend themselves. When feeling threatened, the small mammals roll up in a ball, so only their scaly suit of armour is exposed. You may have seen an echidna or armadillo doing the same thing!
Pangolin scales are made of keratin, the same protein that makes up our own hair and nails. They cover almost their whole body, except the underside, and make up roughly 20% of a pangolin’s body weight.
Also similar to echidnas, pangolins have no teeth, and long sticky tongues to catch their food. Their tongues can be up to 40cm long! And they love to eat ants. They are insectivorous, so their diet also includes termites, larvae and other small insects and they can eat up to 70 million insects each year! This makes them a great natural pest controller.
There are eight pangolin species that live in Africa and Asia. You’ll find the Black-bellied pangolin, White-bellied pangolin, Giant Ground pangolin and Temminck's Ground pangolin in Africa. The Indian pangolin , Philippine pangolin, Sunda pangolin and the Chinese pangolin live in Asia. Depending on species, they can weigh from 1kg to 3.3kgs and measure 85cm to 1.8m nose to tail.
Why are pangolins endangered?
Pangolins are the most trafficked mammals in the entire world. More than 1 million are estimated to have been killed and traded between 2000 and 2013. All eight species of pangolins are featured on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species, ranging from vulnerable to critically endangered, on par with rhinos and tigers.
The thing that makes pangolins so unique, is what they’re hunted for – their scales. Once a pangolin is mercilessly killed, their scales are sold on the black market. Sadly, one pangolin is the equivalent to four month’s income for a pangolin hunter in rural India. Driven by the demand for use in traditional medicine, pangolins are being exploited for commercial gain, in a practice that is both inhumane and unsustainable.
Particularly in China and Vietnam, pangolin scales are thought to have curative properties. But they’re made of keratin, the same thing as our own fingernails and hair, and have no proven medicinal value. In some countries, pangolin meat is also considered to be a delicacy, with the scales used as decorations for rituals and jewellery.
To keep up with black market demand, pangolins are hunted and slaughtered cruelly where they endure immense suffering. Their natural defence mechanism, to curl up into a ball, makes them easy for a human hand to grab. They are often smoked and dragged out of trees and burrows, bludgeoned with clubs and machetes and then boiled, often alive, for their scales.
What World Animal Protection is doing to protect pangolins
World Animal Protection will continue to fight for pangolins, and all wild animals who are being hunted, exploited and killed. Since their armour can’t protect them from humans, it’s up to us. Since 2016, there has been an international ban on the trade in pangolins, enforced by the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Flora and Fauna (CITES). But because the pangolin trade starts in rural remote communities in some of the world’s poorest countries, detection and enforcement of national and international legislation is difficult.
People need to understand that there is no medicinal value in a pangolin’s scales, so we are calling for re-education and stronger enforcement of national and international laws to combat the global trade.
We carried out a two-year study into pangolin hunting in Assam, India, to gain a deeper understanding into how and why pangolins are still so highly sought after on the black market. The report Suffering At Scale – pangolin poaching for the traditional medicine trade outlines our findings.
To protect pangolins from the unimaginable suffering they endure we are calling for:
- Investment in and promotion of herbal and synthetic alternatives
- Combined and coordinated efforts by governments, NGOs and the traditional Asian medicine community to eliminate consumer demand for pangolin-based traditional Asian medicines, particularly in China and Vietnam
- Support for alternative livelihoods, alleviation of poverty and education programs within rural communities wherever pangolins are found globally, to stop the slaughter.
By keeping the pressure on and working together, we can save the pangolins from extinction and help these gentle, shy creatures live in peace and without suffering.