Protecting the pangolin
Saving the world’s most trafficked animal
Opening a shipping container, Chinese customs officers are faced with piles of grain sacks. Suspecting that the contents aren’t what they first seem to be, they slash open a sack to reveal parts of the most trafficked animal in the world. It’s not ivory or rhino horn: the whole shipping container is full of pangolin scales.
Pangolins – eight species of scaly mammal from Asia and Africa – are thought to make up 20 per cent of all illegal wildlife trade, but many people have never heard of them. They’re sometimes mistaken for armadillos, but, while bony plates protect armadillos, pangolins are the only mammals with keratinised scales.
Both groups are prolific diggers and curl up to avoid predators (well, the three-banded armadillo does) but despite their superficial similarities, armadillos are more closely related to anteaters and sloths while the pangolin’s nearest living relatives are the carnivores.
Using the long claws on their front feet, most of these shy animals dig burrows or claw their way into tree hollows during the day. Come nightfall they emerge to search for insects; using their strong sense of smell, they sniff out ant and termite nests before breaking into them and hoovering up the residents with their sticky tongues. The visible part of the pangolin’s tongue is astonishingly long to help it reach the insects, but the muscle doesn’t end at the top of the throat like ours does; its root is attached to bone at the bottom of the ribcage.
Pangolins aren’t very social animals. They live solitary lives for most of the year, only seeking each other out to mate. In a break from their usual quiet nature, males will use their tails like clubs if conflict arises over access to a breeding female. Young are born pale and soft and remain in the burrow with their mother while their scales harden and darken. At a month old a young pangolin is ready to experience life above ground, clinging to the female as she snuffles around. A few months later it’s ready to start eating insects and moving around by itself, but it will remain with its mother for another 18 months until it reaches maturity and must leave home.
The name ‘pangolin’ comes from the Malay word penggulung, meaning ‘one who rolls up’. It refers to the animal’s main form of defence – rolling its body into a ball
like a woodlouse and using its tough scales as a shield. With all their vulnerable parts tucked away, pangolins can keep themselves safe from the sharpest claws and teeth.
Unfortunately, the pangolin’s effective defence mechanism is one of the reasons it’s under threat from humans. When faced with trouble, its usual response is to curl into a ball immediately; unable to fight or run away, it can simply be picked up by poachers and put into a crate.
Pangolins and their body parts are sold for a variety of uses, from ingredients in expensive cuisine to exotic pets. Despite the fact that there’s no evidence for any health benefits, pangolin-based medicine remains in high demand in Asia as a ‘cure’ for many diseases and ailments. For some, the endangered status of the eight species and the illegality of their trade only makes them more desirable, as being able to buy a pangolin dish displays wealth.
In some African cultures, pangolins are consumed to promote long lives and used in rituals when laying foundations for a new home. Their eyes and tails are thought to cure kleptomania and their thoraxes are believed to stop convulsions. Various body parts are turned into charms to prevent rain, ward off evil spirits and to attract good fortune for farmers and those embarking on new business ventures.
To smuggle them across borders, poachers will freeze pangolins whole or boil them to remove the scales. Sometimes they’re delivered alive so that they can be fattened up further, sold as exotic pets or brought to a diner’s table before they’re killed to prove their freshness.
Pangolin trade might have exploded in the last few decades, but it’s by no means a new occurrence. In 1820, King George III was presented with gifts of a helmet and coat made from Indian pangolin scales from the governor
“Pangolins remain little-known creatures in many parts of the world, and people won’t help or care about an animal if they don’t know that it exists”
general of the East India Company. Back then it was a hard task to transport a pangolin or pangolin parts over a long distance, but improved technology has allowed poachers and traders to build large networks and move their goods across whole continents.
In 1975, the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) added all eight species of pangolin to its appendices of regulated animals. At the time, three species were placed in Appendix III – the category with the least strict regulations – four in Appendix II and just one in Appendix I. By 2016, all eight had been moved to Appendix I, acknowledging the very real risk of their extinction in the near future and the urgent need for their protection. All international trade was banned, but the high demand has created a thriving black market and made pangolin poaching a lucrative business.
The trafficking of pangolins was once limited to Asia, but intercontinental smuggling from Africa to Asia has increased in recent years to meet the demand and to compensate for the fact that the endangered animals are getting harder to find.
Enforcement of the ban is difficult; pangolins and their body parts are seized when they’re discovered, but poachers and traffickers are often able to hide the animals among legal goods or find routes that avoid encounters with any officials. While most rangers are devoted to the areas they protect and the animals that live there, there have been reports of some catching pangolins and selling them to traders.
Saving pangolins is a daunting task given the voracious demand for the animals in Asia, but it’s a mission several organisations are determined to take on. Promoting awareness is a key part of their work. Knowledge of the plight of pangolins is spreading, but they remain littleknown creatures in many parts of the world, and people won’t help or care about an animal if they don’t know that it exists.
One group dedicated to the protection of these vulnerable animals is the passionate band of minders at the Tikki Hywood Trust in Zimbabwe. Known as the Pangolin Men, the minders each provide round-theclock care for a single injured or rescued pangolin. When all the feeding, carrying and walking has helped them back into good shape they’re released into the wild. This
doesn’t mean the minders can rest though. With so many pangolins being caught by poachers and then seized by the authorities, new animals are always arriving in need of care – the battle to save them never ends.
Pangolins are hard to keep alive in captivity, so conservation in their natural habitat is crucial if they’re to survive. Increased numbers of highly trained rangers would go some way to keeping pangolins and their neighbours safe; poachers often hunt other vulnerable animals like rhinos, so they are a grave danger to the whole habitat.
In case trafficking wasn’t damaging their populations enough, many of the species are also under threat from deforestation and land development. The Chinese pangolin’s range in eastern China was found to have shrunk by 52.2 per cent between 1970 and 2016 because of the introduction of new roads. Not only do the roads cut up the pangolin’s habitat, they also give poachers easier access to the forests. Chinese pangolins have been forced to retreat to mountainous areas and live at higher altitudes to survive. The scientists behind the study have urged the Chinese Government to expand nature reserves and give the pangolins better protection.
In recent years, scientists and conservation organisations have been meeting at summits and conferences to discuss pangolins, share their research and decide what should be done. Support from the public is growing as more people learn about pangolins, and pressure is increasing on governments and policy makers to help them. The threats these animals face are huge and numerous, so combining forces is likely to be the best way of tackling the problem and ultimately providing these beautiful bug-eaters with a future.
“Saving pangolins is a daunting task given the voracious
demand for them”
Above Overlapping scales make eating a pangolin almost impossible for even the fiercest of predators, as this lion is discovering
Above Also known as the black-bellied pangolin, the long-tailed pangolin is native to western and central Africa
right Pangolins curlup at the first sign of danger,so poachers can simply pickthem up
Above If they’re smuggled live, pangolins can be fattened up before being sold
Above Known as the Pangolin Men, this group of volunteers is dedicated to saving and rehabilitating pangolins
Young pangolins taken from their mothers to be sold as pets need specialistcare to survive