Most only know about pangolins in relation to the Chinese favouring their scales for their traditional medicines, or indeed, for their meat - a delicacy for the ultra-wealthy in both China and Vietnam. This harmless creature is also rumoured to have been responsible for the Covid pandemic, which is unlikely, to my mind. However, I have read that pangolins could be a source of the virus’ journey from animals to a human pandemic, and although an unproven path, what is clear is that repeated close contact with wild animals, whether legal or illegal, is a risk factor for animal diseases jumping to humans.
The pangolin’s scales, like rhino horn - another item illegally poached - have absolutely no proven medicinal value, yet they have been used in traditional Chinese medicine probably for centuries to reputedly help with ailments ranging from lactation difficulties to arthritis. The scales are typically dried and ground up into powder, which may be turned into pills. The pangolin is believed to be the world’s most trafficked non-human mammal, with tens of thousands of pangolins being poached every year. Even their skins are used for boots, belts and bags, predominantly found in the US and Mexico. The trafficking of these animals has been exacerbated by an unlikely culprit – the Internet.
Criminals can access the world’s marketplace by the swipe of a finger, and they know where to look.
Because of illegal poaching in China, an estimated 195,000 pangolins were trafficked in 2019 for their scales alone. In June 2020 China was reported to have increased protection for the native Chinese pangolin to the highest level, which would close an important loophole for consumption of the species in China. Additionally, the government apparently will no longer allow the use of pangolin scales in traditional medicine. Hmm.
This poor shy creature is now in trouble. There are eight species, four of them in Asia, and they are listed by the IUCN (International Union for Conservation of Nature) as ‘critically endangered’ and the remaining four in Africa are listed as ‘vulnerable’, and all species face declining populations because of poaching. Once the Asian pangolins became harder to smuggle, the illicit traders started to target the African ones, and now all species are endangered.
Let’s have a look at these weird creatures. Known as the ‘guardians of the forest’ because of their ant and termite appetite, they range in size from the size of a large housecat to over four feet long.
Toothless, they are largely covered in scales made of keratin – the same as our fingernails and hair, and animal horns. Most live on the ground, but some can climb trees. Solitary animals with poor eyesight, only coming together to mate, they are mainly active at night, and scavenge for ants and termites, hence their nickname of ‘scaly anteater’. With a long snout and an even longer tongue, fierce claws for digging up termite and ant nests, they are able to close their noses and ears when digging to prevent ants from getting in! Their defence mechanism is similar to an armadillo – they roll into a ball, and can lash out with tails also covered in sharp scales, and are able to release a smelly fluid from a gland at the base of their tails as a further deterrent to predators. The word pangolin comes from ‘penggulung,’ the Malay word for roller – the action a pangolin takes in self-defence.
Not a lot is known about their natural history and behaviour, and because they are solitary and secretive, apparently it’s not even known how many pangolins remain in the wild. Scientists and conservationists are trying to estimate population sizes, and where they still remain. They are extremely difficult to maintain in captivity, and most die within a short period after capture, though some have reportedly made it up to 20 years, but there is insufficient infrastructure to care for any injured ones that are found. Conservation efforts must therefore focus on the need to keep these creatures in the wild, but until wildlife authorities find ways to stop illegal poaching, this will be another animal doomed to go the same way as the dodo.