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The Pangolin: The most endangered animal you didn't know existed

Updated on February 15, 2017
GailLedford profile image

Gail is a 29 year old animal lover from Georgia who is passionate about wildlife and wild places.

What is a Pangolin?

If you've ever seen a Pangolin (and it is highly unlikely that you have), you might think that it looked like an anteater covered in scales. Pangolins, which are sometimes called "scaly anteaters" are small mammals that are covered in a tough layer of overlapping scales. There are eight different species of pangolin that are known to exist across Asia and sub-Saharan Africa. Unfortunately, poaching for the illegal wildlife trade has made these animals one of the most endangered species in the world, and unless more awareness is raised about the plight of these incredible animals, they will continue their silent march to extinction.

What do Pangolin's Look Like?

The pangolin is unlike any other creature to ever roam this planet. The different species vary in size from about 1.6 kg ( 3.5 lbs.) to 33kg (73 lbs.). Their colors range from a yellowish brown to olive to dark brown. They have a protective layer of overlapping scales that are made out of keratin, the same material that human hair and fingernails are made out of and they bear and extremely strong resemblance to artichoke leaves. The scales continue to grow throughout the pangolin's life and are filed down as the angolin digs burrows and tunnel through the soil to look for their favorite meals: termites and ants. The underside of the pangolin, unlike the top, is not covered in scales. Asian pangolin's differ from African pangolins because, while both species have undersides that are covered in sparse fur, Asian pangolins also have really thick bristles that stick out between their scales.

They have conical heads and jaws that lack teeth along with extremely long, powerful tongues that are amazingly muscular and sticky. The perfect tools for reaching and lapping up ants and termites out of deep cavities. Pangolins do not have very good vision, so they use their strong sense of smell to locate their food. The pangolin's long tongue is not attached where you would think a normal tongue would be (in the mouth), it is actually attached near its pelvis and last pair of ribs! When it is fully extended, a pangolin's tongue it is actually longer than its head as well as its entire body! When it is not being used, the pangolin's tongue retracts and remains at rest inside a special place in the animal's chest cavity. Pangolin's have extremely muscular stomachs that have small keratinous spines projecting inside its interior. Usually, it's full of small stones which help grind up its food much like the gizzard of a bird.

They have stout limbs that are made just right for digging and each of their paws have five toes. Their forefeet have three long curved claws which they use to demolish termite and ant nests as well as to dig burrows. Pangolins shuffle along on all four limbs, balancing on the outside edges of their forefeet, and tucking their claws underneath as they walk. These animals can move surprisingly fast and will often stand on their hind limbs to sniff the air. They are very capable swimmers. Some species, like the African ground pangolin are completely terrestrial, meaning they spend all of their time on the ground, while others, like the African tree pangolin, are adept climbers and use their claws and semi-prehensile tails to grip bark and scale trees.

Chart of the eight different species of pangolin.
Chart of the eight different species of pangolin. | Source

Pangolin Taxonomy

There are currently eight known species of Pangolin that reside in various places throughout Africa and Asia:

African Pangolins:

  • Cape or Temminck’s Ground pangolin (Smutsia temminckii)
  • White-bellied or Tree pangolin (Phataginus tricuspis)
  • Giant Ground pangolin (Smutsia gigantea)
  • Black-bellied or Long-tailed pangolin (Phataginus tetradactyla)

Asian Pangolins:

  • Chinese pangolin (Manis pentadactyla)
  • Sunda pangolin (Manis javanica)
  • Indian pangolin (Manis crassicaudata)
  • Philippine pangolin (Manis culionensis)

The pangolin shares a lot of the same characteristics as the sloth, the anteater, and the armadillo (the Xenarthrans), but they are actually more closely related to the order Carnivora (which includes dogs, dogs, bears, etc.) All pangolins belong to the genus manis in the family Manidae which is the only family within the order Pholidota.

Map of habitat distribution for the different pangolin species throughout Africa and Asia.
Map of habitat distribution for the different pangolin species throughout Africa and Asia. | Source

Habitat Distribution

The pangolin can be found in a variety of different habitats which include tropical forest, thick brush, cleared and cultivated areas, as well as Savannah grassland. Asian pangolins are particularly threatened due to habitat loss which is due to expanding human encroachment.

Pangolins dig extremely deep burrows. Some burrows that were found which were made by terrestrial pangolins had chambers in them that were so big that a full grown human could fit through and stand up. The pangolin uses these chambers for nesting, and sleeping. Some pangolins, like the Malayan pangolin sleep in the hollows of forks and trees and logs.

Lifespan

The average lifespan of a pangolin in the wild is currently unknown, but pangolins have been reported to live as old as 20 years in captivity.

Pangolin Behavior

Pangolins are very elusive animals which makes it very hard for scientists to study them in the wild. Some species of pangolin, like the Chinese pangolin, sleep underground in burrows during the day and only come out of them at night, while others like the Malayan and African tree pangolin have been known to sleep up in the trees, emerging in the evenings to forage for insects. They are well adapted for digging burrows, using their feet and claws to scrape away dirt as they excavate the sides and roofs of passages by pushing up from side to side, using their front and hind feet to back accumulated towards the burrow entrance, vigerously kicking dirt out of the entrance up to a meter or more.

Shirt made out of pangolin scales.
Shirt made out of pangolin scales. | Source

Pangolin's in Trouble

Pangolins are considered to be one of the most trafficked mammals in Asia and increasingly in Africa. Pangolins are in high demand in Vietnam and China. Their meat is considered a highly prized delicacy and their scales are used in a great many traditional Asian medicines that are used to treat a range of ailments from asthma to rheumatism to arthritis. None of which has been scientifically proven. All eight species of Pangolin are protected under both national and international law, but that does not seem to be stopping the massive illegal trade that has only seemed to increase in the last couple of years. This increasingly lucrative trade is driving the poaching roof as the poachers take the creatures from their forest homes and sometimes feed them gravel to increase their weight and value.

This highly illegal trade continues to take place despite the fact prohibitions under CITES (Convention on International Trade of Endangered Species) through the establishment of zero export quotas for Asian pangolins from the wild and traded for commercial purposes. Most people do not even know that the pangolin even exists This including the lack of political pressure and population information make tackling the black market trade even more challenging. In fact a study was done in 2014 of seized goods since 2010 revealed that 2.59 tons of pangolins (about 4,870) had been taken. Of those there were 250 intact creatures 220 of them living and 39 dead. Along with being hunted down for their meat and scales pangolins are also under threat from loss of habitat, use of pesticide, and other man made nuisances such as electric fencing.

How Can You Help?

There are several organizations out there that are working extremely hard trying to stop the pangolin from its silent march to extinction and there are a myriad of ways that people can help raise awareness about these unique creatures.

Here are some ways people can help save pangolins:

  1. Don't eat pangolins.
  2. Don't buy pangolin products. No pangolin medicine, no pangolin meat, no pangolin scales, no pangolin wine, no pangolin jewelry, no pangolin leather...etc.
  3. Spread the word. Tell everyone! In more recent years more and more people have become aware of the pangolin's existance and the threats that they face. This has directly lead to more direct policy, reform, research, as well as more concentrated conservation efforts to save this amazing mammal. The word of mouth is a powerful thing, and if more and more people joined in, there is a chance that the pangolin can be saved.
  4. Report wildlife crime. If you see ANY illegal wildlife trade, report it to your local authorities and be sure and educate yourself about the laws in your area as well as in your country.
  5. Support these organizations by following the links listed below.

Now that you know pangolins exist, would you like to learn more about them and possibly support ongoing conservation efforts?

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