What Counts in the End
Like an oversized pinecone, a tree pangolin hangs from a branch—a trait that’s quite the departure from the habits of ground-dwelling species of the African savannah and African and Asian forests. Pangolins are the armored tanks of the animal kingdom and employ unique strategies for survival.
With a sense of purpose, the little creature with the thick set of scales and the rounded back approaches what looks like a small hill and begins digging in the ground. Due to its poor eyesight it can barely see what it’s doing, however its keen sense of smell detected the termite mound from quite a distance away, long before the mound’s inhabitants could sound their alarm. Seizing the moment, the pangolin gets to work with a technique that can hardly be described as subtle. Step 1: With the claws of its strong front legs, it rips into the mound. Then comes step 2: With its sticky tongue, which can be even longer than its body, it starts to probe the tunnels in search of prey. The ability to consume up to 7 ounces of insects per day makes pangolins an important factor in regulating the termite populations in their habitats. A pangolin’s tongue (up to 16 inches long) is connected at the bottom of its rib cage and stowed away in its chest when it is not in use. In many ways pangolins (represented by four species in Africa and another four in Southeast Asia) are among the most astonishing members of the animal kingdom. They’re the only truly scaly mammals in the world. Just like an armadillo or hedgehog they can roll up into a ball to defend themselves, and they can use their scaly plates to lacerate the mouth of a would-be predator. Although they look similar to armadillos and are often referred to as scaly anteaters, the toothless creatures are actually more closely related to carnivores such as bears, wolves, dogs, and cats. Anyway, who needs teeth when you’ve got a sticky tongue and pebbles in your stomach to aid you in crushing and digesting your meal? The scales also come in handy for hunting: Tens of thousands of ticked-off insects might try to bite the creature that’s trying to eat them, but they can’t penetrate a pangolin’s armor. It has thick eyelids for added protection and can also seal off its nostrils and ears. Pangolins are well protected against almost every other species, too—with the exception of Homo sapiens. Human poaching has made pangolins the most trafficked mammals on the planet. The Red List of Threatened Species assesses two pangolin species as vulnerable while three are endangered and the other three are now critically endangered. Some 100,000 pangolins are poached in the wild each year. Pangolins are in high demand in Chinese medicine, but the latest edition of the Chinese Pharmacopoeia doesn’t include any part of the pangolin in its approved items due to “resource exhaustion.”