This story was updated on 15 February 2019.
World Pangolin Day is on 16 February 2019 and we’re spreading awareness about the world’s most trafficked animal with Amy Attenborough, a former game ranger at Londolozi Game Reserve. She shares her top ten things you should know about these endangered creatures.
One of the things I love most about guiding is watching the joy my guests get from seeing an animal for the very first time; so imagine how much better it is when that person didn’t even know the animal existed before they arrived at Londolozi. It is priceless to see the look they get as they clap eyes on an animal whose appearance fits somewhere between a dinosaur, an artichoke and a small dog covered in giant toenails that they couldn’t possibly have thought up for themselves. Many South Africans will know this animal as their ever-elusive nemesis and for those who don’t know this creature; I’d like to introduce you to the pangolin.
The plight of the pangolin
This species is the Cape or Temminck’s Ground Pangolin and is the only species we find in Southern Africa. The other African species include the Giant ground pangolin, White-bellied or Tree pangolin and the Black-bellied or Long-tailed pangolin.
There are eight species of this scaly creature, four of which are found in Africa and four in Asia. Two of the Asian species are listed as endangered and the others are all rapidly declining in number. The astonishing and little-known reason for this is that the pangolin is the most trafficked animal on the planet.
Conservative estimates say that 10 000 pangolins are trafficked every year. Annamiticus, an advocacy group, says if you assume only 10% to 20% of the actual trade is reported by the news media, the true number trafficked between 2011 and 2013 was between 116 990 and 233 980. A CNN article on the issue reported that in August 2013, nearly 7 tonnes of pangolins from Indonesia were seized at a port in Haiphong, Vietnam. In 2008, almost 14 tonnes of pangolins were seized in Sumatra, likely bound for Vietnam or China. This problem is not only an Asian one. In 2014 more than 6 tonnes of African pangolin scales were seized before export to Asia.
Because the demand for these animals is so high, the price for them has followed suit. In parts of Asia, pangolin scales go for about $600-$1 000 per kilo and in restaurants the meat costs about $350 per kilo. You apparently have to order the whole animal, which weighs at least 5kg and so the meal can end up costing a whopping $1 750. Eating the meat is considered a status symbol and the scales are eaten as a treatment for lactation issues, blood circulation problems and cancer. And carrying a pangolin tongue in your pocket is supposedly considered good luck.
Did you know that World Pangolin Day will be celebrated on 16 February 2019?
It is ironic to think that the scales of the pangolin, designed to protect this animal, is actually what is leading to its demise. The scales have become so sought after in Asia that they sell for around $600-$1000 per kilogram. The pangolin’s hard keratinous scales cover most of its body apart from its soft under belly and face and make up about 20% of its overall body weight.
Once balled up, the pangolin becomes like an impenetrable fortress that even lions, leopards and tigers cannot break into. They do also have the ability to thrash their scaled tail about while trying to get away, which is enough to cut a predator’s skin. If none of these tactics work, they may even emit a noxious-smelling acid from glands near the anus to try to chase away the predator.
Top ten facts to know about this interesting little critter:
- Pangolins are ancient animals. The earliest pangolin fossils date back to the Eocene epoch, 35 million to 55 million years ago, shortly after the dinosaurs went extinct.
- Despite their reptilian appearance, they are in fact mammals and are covered in hard scales that when they roll up make them virtually impenetrable and protect their soft face and undersides.
- Despite popular belief they are actually more closely related to true carnivores than to anteaters, sloths or armadillos, although this relationship is still unclear.
- The ground pangolin got its common name from the Malay word ‘pengguling’, meaning ‘rolling up’. Unfortunately, this practice makes it even easier for humans to capture and smuggle them, as hunters can simply pick them up.
- They have large claws and powerful forearms, which they use to dig into the ground as well as termite mounds for food. It is believed that pangolins eat more than 70 million insects per year, mostly made up of ants and termites.
- They have a long, sticky tongue that they use to lap up their food. Amazingly the tongue is actually attached near its pelvis and last pair of ribs. At rest the tongue retracts into a sheath in its chest cavity and in some of the smaller pangolin species, their tongue is actually longer than their entire body length.
- They do not have teeth and so their food is ground down in their muscular stomach, which also has keratinous spines projecting into its interior, and is ground against soil and small pebbles ingested during the feeding process, similar to a bird’s gizzard.
- They have an incredibly good sense of smell and can actually close their ears and nostrils when feeding to keep insects out.
- They live about twenty years, give birth to one baby at a time, which they wean at about three months and which catches rides on its’ mothers back or tail.
- David Attenborough named the sunda pangolin as one of his ten species he would take on his ark to save from extinction.
The Pangolin is an obscure looking creature and may not be the most beautiful or charismatic of the African species. However it is an incredibly special animal that needs our protection, particularly at a time like this when the market looks to our African population as a source to replace the dwindling Asian population.
Although these extraordinary creatures are not in the limelight, they are a reminder of the diversity of species and design on planet earth. No one would miss a species they didn’t know existed and so it is wild places like Londolozi that are so important because they are a space where people have the opportunity to meet and fall in love with some of our weirder African animals.
How you can help
You can adopt a pangolin through the World Wildlife Fund. Now this doesn’t mean you’ll get to take one home with you, but your donation will go a long way to protecting these precious creatures.
The African Pangolin Working Group is involved in all areas of conservation including educating communities and law enforcement about the plight of the Pangolin, rescue and rehabilitation, as well as working with governments and non-government organisations across Africa. You can support their efforts by making a direct donation into their bank account or PayPal account, alternatively you can add them as a beneficiary on your MySchool My Planet card.
Johannesburg Wildlife Veterinary Hospital helps to patch up and rehabilitate some of Joburg’s wilder residents including pangolins. The hospital is funded by the community and corporate sponsors and they’d appreciate whatever you have to spare so that they can continue providing the best care.
Original blog article re-published with special permission from Londolozi Game Reserve.
Words Amy Attenborough
Photography Amy Attenborough and Don Heyneke