Scaly devil

Pan­golins have baf­fled peo­ple for cen­turies. Weird ideas about ‘scaly devils’ and ‘fish hogs’ may ex­plain why they’re the world’s most traf­ficked mam­mals,

BBC Wildlife Magazine - - Welcome - says Natalie Lawrence, but they could also help save them.

How peo­ple per­ceive the pan­golin

The Dutch ex­plorer Jan Huyghen van Lin­schoten en­coun­tered a fab­u­lous and un­usual beast while trav­el­ling around In­dia in the late 16th cen­tury. It was a “fish of most won­der­full and strange forme”, about the size of a “mid­dle-sized dogge”, and had been hauled out of a river in Goa. It ran around “snort­ing like a hogge” and was cov­ered in “scales a thumb’s breadth, harder than iron or steel”. When at­tacked, it rolled into a ball and could not be prised open. Van Lin­schoten was baf­fled, though he had seen plenty of ex­otic won­ders. Par­tic­u­larly when the crea­ture un­furled it­self and scut­tled off to safety. What on Earth was this thing?

Four hun­dred years later, we can in­fer that this ‘fish’ was most likely a pan­golin. There aren’t any other scaly dog-like crea­tures liv­ing in In­dia. And cer­tainly no fish that can take off at a sprint. We can even iden­tify what species this might have been. Of the eight pan­golin species liv­ing in Asia and Africa, only one lives in south­ern In­dia. Van Lin­schoten’s fish-dog-pig was prob­a­bly a long-tailed pan­golin, Phatag­i­nus tetradacty­la.


Of course, the mod­ern method of or­gan­is­ing species ac­cord­ing to their evo­lu­tion­ary re­la­tion­ships does not cor­re­spond with the ways nat­u­ral­ists hun­dreds of years ago or­gan­ised na­ture. Nat­u­ral­ists in 16th-cen­tury Europe saw beasts as sym­bolic things with places in a nat­u­ral hi­er­ar­chy. They had moral mean­ings: many were very clearly ‘good’ or ‘bad’. Pan­golins were a lit­tle trick­ier – they seemed to fall be­tween the cracks in this nat­u­ral or­der, and ap­peared to be slip­pery, am­biva­lent crea­tures.

This elu­sive na­ture may be why even to­day pan­golins are still so un­known. Though we now know far more about the bi­ol­ogy of the an­i­mals, men­tion them to the av­er­age per­son and they will most likely give you a blank stare and ask if they’re some kind of pre­his­toric crea­ture. Ex­plain that pan­golins are an­i­mals rather like anteaters with scaly ex­te­ri­ors that can curl up into balls like ar­madil­los, and many folk will sus­pect you’re pulling their legs.

Such a low pro­file is rather sur­pris­ing. These bizarre crea­tures have been traded for hun­dreds, if not thou­sands, of years across Asia and Africa. Pan­golins are val­ued pri­mar­ily for their meat and uses in tra­di­tional medicine. Their scales are noth­ing more than ker­atin, the same ma­te­rial as in our hair and nails, or rhino horn. Yet, in tra­di­tional Chi­nese and Viet­namese medicine they are still falsely be­lieved to pos­sess all sorts of spe­cial pow­ers, in­clud­ing aphro­disiac prop­er­ties. They’ve re­cently even been smug­gled to the USA be­cause they con­tain a sub­stance used to make crys­tal metham­phetamine. The black mar­ket is se­duc­tively lu­cra­tive: a kilo of pan­golin meat can be worth hun­dreds of dol­lars, a kilo of scales thou­sands of dol­lars.


The high-end restau­rants cook­ing foetal pan­golin and party peo­ple shoot­ing up on scales didn’t ex­ist in the 17th cen­tury, but pan­golins were used in many sim­i­larly weird ways back then. In Java in the 1630s, one Dutch physi­cian met a hole-dig­ging an­i­mal with a “cold na­ture”, cov­ered in carp-like scales. The Ja­vanese ap­par­ently called this mon­ster tau­nah (dig­ger in the earth), while Chi­nese physi­cians used pan­golins to treat all sorts of ail­ments. In the 1720s, an­other Dutch­man in Am­bon re­ported an


an­i­mal called a pang­goel­ing, with an “ex­tremely hard and scaly hide that the Chi­nese and Ja­vanese used to make ar­mour… and would also eat its sweet flesh”.

Pan­golins have now been so ex­ten­sively hunted that all eight species are threat­ened. Sev­eral are but a scale’s breadth away from be­ing lost for­ever. Pan­golin prod­ucts were com­pre­hen­sively banned un­der CITES (the Con­ven­tion on In­ter­na­tional Trade in En­dan­gered Species of Wild Flora and Fauna) in 2016, but this has not slowed the in­creases in il­le­gal killing or highly or­gan­ised in­ter­na­tional trade.

Pan­golins have the du­bi­ous hon­our of be­ing the most traf­ficked mam­mals on the planet, yet in Europe we barely know they ex­ist. So many cul­tures around the world are fa­mil­iar with them, but why have these an­i­mals re­mained com­par­a­tively un­known to us? It’s a ques­tion that we need to an­swer quickly. Strong pub­lic sup­port will be vi­tal in help­ing pre­vent pan­golins from be­ing poached out of ex­is­tence.


For hun­dreds of years, pan­golins have both fas­ci­nated and con­fused Euro­peans. But have their hy­brid na­tures pre­vented them from be­com­ing ‘fa­mil­iar’ ex­otic crea­tures, such as ele­phants or lions? Pan­golins have al­ways been enig­matic beasts, with many guises. Early Euro­pean ex­plor­ers came across them un­der many names all over the world: lin in Siam (now Thai­land); pan­goelling in China, Su­ma­tra and Java; al­le­goe in the Mal­abar re­gion of south­ern In­dia; and quo­gelo in Guinea. These crea­tures had har­lequin na­tures – a bit fish-like, some­what mam­malian and def­i­nitely rep­til­ian. In Siam in the 1680s, one French mis­sion­ary was fas­ci­nated by a scaly “hedge­hog” that seemed to be a reppp­tile, but, con­fus­ingly, also bore live youngg that rode on the mother’s tail. Fe­male paaan­golins have only one baby at a time, wwhich hitches lifts in a way you’d imag­ine thatt only an­i­mals in Dis­ney films might ddo. These tricky crea­tures could be very trou­ble­some or very help­ful. In Dutch colonies in the Eastt Indies (now South-east Asia), pan­golinsp were seen as pests, un­der­min­ing stone flooorso and dig­ging un­un­der colo­nial build­ings. They werew called, ap­pro­pri­ately, ‘Devils of Tai­wan’ ( Tay­wan nsche n Duyvel). A menagerie in Am­s­ter­dam in the 1700s ad­ver­tised a duyvel on show. But it was stuffed rather thann alive: the spec­i­men had been killedk due to its ob­nox­ious habit of dig­ging throu­ughu stone.

Above: a 19th cen­tury art­work de­picts the pan­golin’s unique scales and its abil­ity to climb trees, us­ing its pre­hen­sile tail for bal­ance.

A long-tailed pan­golin en­grav­ing from Ge­orge Shaw and Fred­er­ick Nod­der’s The Nat­u­ral­ist’s Mis­cel­lany (1790).

Be­low: a Euro­pean trav­eller’s draw­ing of a pan­golin from the 18th cen­tury.

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