What are they?
Pangolins are mammals, but because they are covered in scales, they look more like reptiles. Some say they look a bit like mini dinosaurs. There are eight species in total, four in Asia and four in Africa.
Mainly nocturnal, they feed on termites and ants, and like ant-eaters have long snouts, long tongues and strong front legs. They are solitary animals and live in hollow trees or burrows, depending on the species. Their skin is covered with large scales made of keratin, the same material as human finger nails. The smallest species is only 30cm, but the largest can grow to over a metre in length.
They have poor vision, but a good sense of smell and good hearing. Pangolins can curl up into a ball when threatened, with their scales acting like armour plating. Another defence mechanism is the ability to emit a horrid smelling chemical from glands near the base of the tail.
They don’t have any teeth but their strong front legs are equipped with sharp claws. These are used to strip bark from trees, dig up the soil and open up termite nests to find food. Their diet consists mainly of ants, termites and larvae, and occasionally other insects, which they obtain using their long tongues.
After a gestation period of 70–140 days, African Pangolins give birth to a single offspring, but Asian species can produce up to three. The babies are weaned around three months and abandoned after two years when they become sexually mature.
Why are they threatened?
There are three reasons why Pangolins are becoming endangered: traditional medicine, meat consumption and loss of habitat. All eight species are threatened, and three are classed as critically endangered.
Pangolin scales and meat have been used as ingredients in traditional Chinese medicine for hundreds of years. Although there is no scientific evidence, people in southern China and Vietnam believe they can help dissolve blood clots, improve blood circulation and help lactating women secrete milk.
Traditional African medicine, along with cultural and spiritual rituals, also uses Pangolins. Different tribes in central and southern Africa use a variety of parts including the head, tail, eyes and meat, but the scales are the primary ingredient in most cultures.
As well as using the meat in medicine, Pangolin flesh is also consumed for food. In China and Vietnam it is considered a delicacy and in a lot of African countries it is just another source of bushmeat.
Habitat loss is another reason why Pangolins are threatened. Forests and scrublands are being cleared for agricultural use, and new towns and roads are constantly being built closer to wild areas. Fences erected to keep livestock in, also reduce the Pangolin’s ability to travel to find food and look for a mate, and electric fences can prove fatal.
Other factors which add to their demise include roadkill from traffic, death from traps laid for other animals and loss of food due to the increased use of pesticides.
Pangolins are secretive, solitary and mainly nocturnal animals, so groups trying to save them have an uphill battle from the start. Little is known about their behaviour, distribution and overall population. However, scientists and conservationists working in Asia and Africa are gradually finding out more and more about these scaly anteaters, and how they can be helped. Part of their work involves education and general awareness, as a lot of people do not even know what a Pangolin is. Because they are difficult to keep in captivity, the main focus is on how to stop the poaching and trafficking of animals from the wild. With new tighter regulations in China, there has been an increase in the number of shipments from Africa to Asia, and these are being investigated to work out exactly where the routes start from so they can be stopped.
Researchers in China are looking at a possible link between Pangolins and the outbreak of Coronavirus in humans. They are known to carry a virus protein which is similar to the SARS coronavirus 2, which caused the recent pandemic. However, the early speculation highlighting the link may have increased the slaughter of more Pangolins, reducing their numbers even further.