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What are pangolins and why is it important to know about them?

Hands up if you have ever heard of a pangolin? When I posed this question to my friends not one single person had, however, just like them, I can guarantee you that once you know about them you will never forget about these amazing animals.

It is estimated that one million pangolins have been hunted in the last decade.


Pangolins (Manidae) are found in Asia and Africa. They are commonly mistaken as reptiles and sometimes referred to as ‘walking artichokes’. However, they are the only mammal that is wholly covered in scales. Their scales function as protection against predators, if scared or touched by predators they will roll up into a ball like an armadillo. Some pangolins depending on size may have up to 1,000 scales.

They are extremely gentle and intelligent creatures and although they look like a ‘scaly anteater’ they are remarkably more linked to bears, cats, and dogs. They can range in size from a large house cat to 4 feet long. They love eating ants and termites which they catch with their incredible long tongue. Their tongues can almost equal their body length!

Pangolins are lone creatures and only together when they mate and bear young with some fathers staying in the den until the single offspring is independent. The young will ride on their mother’s tails until they are around 3 months old. There are 8 species of Pangolin all of which are threatened with extinction. They range from ‘vulnerable’ to ‘critically endangered’, as classified by the ICUN Red List of Threatened Species.

Poaching and Trafficking

These shy creatures’ main threat is illegal poaching and trafficking. It is estimated that one million pangolins have been hunted in the last decade. This is mainly due to their use in Chinese medicine as their scales are thought to have high medicinal value. It is important to note that there is no scientific basis to these beliefs. Their scales are simply made of keratin, just like our nails. This is also the case with rhino horn and elephant tusks. Their meat is considered a delicacy and their scales are expensive to purchase therefore are a status symbol that only the wealthy can afford.

Pangolin Scales in traditional Chinese medicine. Image by TRAFFIC

Their habitat – forests and grasslands – are increasingly facing habitat destruction. Reasons for this are due to clearing land for cattle farms or palm oil plantations.

COVID-19 Links

Pangolins have recently been in the spotlight due to their potential links to SARS-CoV-2. It is believed that they could be a possible intermediate animal species in the transmission of the virus from animals to humans. Specifically, as some were sold at a wet market in Wuhan. However, there is still intense scientific debate surrounding this.

This potential link could well be a positive as it has placed additional pressure on governments and organizations to increase legislation around the illegal trafficking of these mammals. It also placed a spotlight on these animals that many would have never heard of and created a sense of urgency in addressing their vulnerable status.

Activism & Legislation

In 2016 at CITES (the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species), 180 countries agreed to place a ban on international trade of pangolins. However, they continued to remain attractive to poachers meaning more action was required.

On June 5th, 2020, we thankfully saw what can be considered major action. China removed pangolins from their list of animals that are approved for medicine. They had been approved for consumption for decades, so this is a great step forward. This will hopefully send a clear message that alternatives can be used and reduce the demand for pangolin products. Along with this, China also upgraded pangolins protection status to a Class 1, the same as the beloved Panda. This is the highest level of protection that can be placed on an animal. It prohibits all domestic trade and use.

Questions remain around what will happen the stockpiles that China has. Will they still be able to trade domestically? Will this reduce the impact and effect of the government’s protection actions? There are many questions to be answered.

Ground Pangolin

The way forward

Now I can only assume you have fallen in love with these innocent creatures and are wondering what can you do? Spreading the word and raising awareness is a great start. Tell your friends and family about pangolins!

Firdia Lisnawati

Next, education is particularly important. For example, in Pakistan pangolins are considered pests however, the poaching of pangolins can have huge negative effects on local communities.  This is because pangolins love for termites and ants can aid agriculture. So, lets learn and educate where we can in attempts to reduce the demand for these harmless mammals.

When the Chinese government upgraded pangolins to protection Class 1, Peter Knights, CEO of environmental nonprofit WildAid said “This is the single greatest measure that could be taken to save the pangolins’, let us not waste this momentum.

To Learn More/ Do More:

  • Instagram: @pangolincrisis
  • Articles: National Geographic
  • Watch: Nigerians Fight to Protect the World’s Most Trafficked Mammal | National Geographic
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