Kate on Conservation

Top 10 reasons to love pangolins

pangolin title card

Pangolins are often referred to as an animal “you’ve never heard of”, but I remember being fascinated by the strange-looking scaly creatures back in childhood, when the Wildlife Factfile was my bible; and my Nan would proudly order the card sets from The Reader’s Digest (‘90s kids will know what I’m talking about — and yes, I still have mine!). 

So, something about Pangolins stuck with me from an early age, maybe it was their cute faces; that crazy-long tongue or the fact that they looked to me like a tiny mythical dragon creature. Whatever it was, I want to convince you of how cool they are too!

Here are my top 10 reasons to love the strange but adorable pangolin..

1. Variety — and bellies!

 There are actually eight species of pangolins. Four are found in Africa, and four in Asia. 

The four African species are named after some of their prominent characteristics — the ground pangolin, the giant pangolin, the white-bellied pangolin, and black-bellied pangolin (is it just me, or does thinking about their bellies make them seem extra sweet?!).

The four Asian species are named geographically; Chinese, Sunda, Indian, and Philippine pangolins. 

Sadly, All species face declining populations due to illegal trade. 

pangolin on the ground
Pangolin moving around at night, photo by Joshua Prieto from Pexels

2. (Medium to) Big Friendly Giant…

Pangolin are shy and harmless critters, that range in size from a large housecat (around 30cm) to more than four feet long (hence the species name: giant pangolin). Their weight ranges from 1.6kg to 33 kg.

Due to their shy and nocturnal nature, they’re difficult to study and we don’t know too much about them, but really, they’re just big, cute and lovely. 

3. They mostly just try to keep to themselves…

Pangolins are solitary and active mostly at night. Most live on the ground (hence the name: ground pangolin), but some, like the black-bellied pangolin, also climb trees. And very rarely; people. Or least this ones person in the photo…

pangolin climbs on hat
Pangolin climbs on hat. Photo credit: Alex Strachan from Pixabay

4. Roly-Poly Pangolins

The word Pangolin comes from the Malay word ‘penggulung,’ meaning ‘roller’– referring to the action a pangolin takes in self-defense. When threatened, they roll into ball and their scales turn into impenetrable armour, just like an armadillo.

Just don’t touch! If touched or grabbed a pangolin will roll up completely into a ball, covering its head with its front legs and exposing its scales to any potential predator. A startled pangolin will use those sharp scales on their tail to lash out. AND they can also release a stinky fluid from a gland at the base of their tails — just like a skunk’s defence mechanism. Best to just leave them alone.

5. Super tongues!

Pangolins are sometimes referred to as ‘scaly anteaters’. Rather unimaginatively, this is because they like to eat ants.Much like anteaters, pangolins have long snouts and super long tongues. This serves as a handy tool for lapping up ants and termites from mounds. 

Their tongues are so large in fact, that they measure longer than the pangolin’s combined head and body length (think pangolin length minus the tail) and they’re actually connected to their ribcage!

pangolin taxidermy
Pangolin taxidermy photo by Louis Mornaud on Unsplash

Pangolins also have a few extra adaptations to help with securing this desired diet — their powerful front claws are great for opening and digging out said termite mounds; and they’re also able to close their noses and ears to keep ants out when they’re eating.

As a result of these awesome adaptations, pangolins are rather successful… eaters. A single pangolin can consume 70 million insects a year!

6. Soil saviours

Pangolins provide an important service in the form of pest control and soil quality improvement. Their mass consumption of ants and termites actually doubles up as a critical ecosystem function by regulating insect populations. Those long snouts they use for digging up food also turn over organic matter and help to oxygenate the soil.

A pangolin sleeps in its burrow. Image Courtesy Pangolin Research Mundulea

Pangolins also create burrows in which to birth their young — the process of creating these helps to break up soil, in turn allowing more air and water to move through the ground — and once they leave their burrows, a whole host of small species begin to move in after them!

7. Unexpected cousins

Though they look and act a lot like anteaters and armadillos (and kinda like skunks too, with the smell defences) pangolins are actually more closely related to bears, cats, and dogs. So, they’re basically a dog with scales. 

Not a pangolin. But a mythical dog-dragon with scales — so pretty similar.

8. Pangolins are the world’s most trafficked non-human mammal

Tens of thousands of pangolins are poached every year. In fact, more than a million pangolins were trafficked over the last decade. They are killed for their scales for use in traditional Chinese medicine and for their meat, which is considered a delicacy among some ultra-wealthy in China and Vietnam. 

Re-imagine-nature -Thousands-of-slaughtered-pangolins-lie-in-a-pit-before-being-burnt-in-Medan-Indonesia
A pit of trafficked pangolin carcasses seized in Indonesia. Photo credit Paul Hilton.

For many years, the Asian species were the primary target of poachers and traffickers. But now that their numbers have been decimated, smugglers are increasingly turning to African pangolins instead.

It’s not surprising then, that the four species of Asian pangolin are listed by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) as critically endangered and the four African species are listed as vulnerable.

Re-imagine-nature -6-ways-to-prevent-the-next-pandemic-pangolin

9. Fingernail scales

Pangolin scales are made of keratin, the same material that makes up fingernails, hair, and horn. Pangolin scales, like rhino horn, have no proven medicinal value, yet they are used in traditional Chinese medicine to help with problems ranging from difficulties with breastfeeding to arthritis. The scales are typically dried and ground up into powder, which may then be turned into a pill. 

10. Pangolins desperately need protecting

Back in 2016, the 186 countries party to the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES), the treaty that regulates the international wildlife trade, voted to ban the commercial trade in pangolins. Success! However…

Despite this ban in commercial trade, just three years later in 2019, pangolin smuggling reached an all-time high. In February, Malaysian law enforcement seized 30 tonnes of mostly whole, frozen pangolins. In April 2019, there were two further record-breaking seizures of trafficked pangolin in the space of a week: Singapore seized a 14.2-ton shipment and a 14-ton shipment of pangolin scales — from an estimated 72,000 pangolins — came from Nigeria. 

The pangolin pit by Paul Hilton
The pangolin pit by Paul Hilton, Wildlife Photographer of the Year 2016

Back in March 2020 (just days before the Coronavirus pandemic really took hold in the UK) researchers in Guangzhou, suggested that the pangolin is a possible host for the Novel Coronavirus, although the precise source of the outbreak has yet to be confirmed.

John Scanlon AO stated at the launch of the End Wildlife Crime International Agreement initiative: “Pangolin are now being associated with the spread of Coronavirus. In 2016, all 8 pangolin species were uplisted to Appendix I at the CITES Convention of the Parties…Between 2016 — 2019, there were 206.4 tonnes of pangolin scales confiscated — that’s after the uplisting at CITES had taken place.”

By the end of 2020, following the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic, China finally banned the production of and trade in wildlife for human consumption. They also removed pangolin scales from the traditional Chinese pharmacopeia. 

There is still much work to be done to protect these unique creatures, however, and the plight of the pangolin is far from over.

You can support Pangolins today by helping Born Free Foundation to protect these animals in the wild. Click here to find out more.

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Learn more about Pangolins…

Learn more about CITES and the illegal wildlife trade

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