BBC Wildlife Magazine
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,
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
PANGOLINS SEEMED TO FALL BETWEEN THE CRACKS, AND APPEARED TO BE SLIPPERY, AMBIVALENT CREATURES.
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.