If you ask almost any guide in Africa what their dream sighting would be, it would most probably include the sighting of a pangolin. Many guides will go their entire guiding career, seeing only one pangolin if they are lucky. Here in Southern Africa, this rather strange-looking animal found here is called Temminck’s Pangolin or the Ground Pangolin, and is classified as vulnerable on the IUCN Red List. The other three species of pangolin found in Africa consist of the White-Bellied Pangolin (endangered), the Black-Bellied Pangolin (vulnerable), and the Giant Ground Pangolin (endangered), with the four Asian species consisting of the Chinese Pangolin (critical), Indian Pangolin (endangered), Sunda Pangolin (critical), and the Philippine Pangolin (critical) (IUCN Red List, 2021). All eight species are determined to have decreasing population trends, and if action isn’t taken now, we may lose an exceptionally unique and stunning animal before most people have even heard of them!
Why are these animals so threatened?
Pangolin meat and scales are highly sought after in Asian countries, particularly China and Vietnam (World Wildlife Fund, 2021), making them the most illegally traded wild mammals on the planet (IUCN SSC Pangolin Specialist Group). There has also always been a demand for Pangolin scales in Africa due to beliefs of their healing properties, which have been incorporated into traditional medicines, also known as muti (Walker, 1996, 32). Pangolins are poached regularly, it is estimated that around 100,000 individuals are poached from African Parks every year (African Parks, 2021), and over 1 million poached from the wild in the last decade (IUCN SSC Pangolin Specialist Group).
Pangolins are highly susceptible to poaching, as their defense method is to curl into a ball to protect their soft bellies against their natural predators, leaving them vulnerable to being picked up and stored by a passing poacher (Hine & Hine, 2015, 201).
In recognition of the 10th annual World Pangolin Day, here are 10 Interesting Facts about Pangolins!
- There are eight species of pangolin around the world, four in Asia, four in Africa, which are all part of the one Order Pholidota.
- The IUCN has virtually no information on the population sizes of any species of pangolin, however, they are all believed to be in rapid decline, particularly the Asian species.
- They carry their young around on their backs/tails until they are weaned at roughly 3 months old.
- Pangolins’ scales cover their entire bodies and are made of keratin – the same protein that makes up our hair and nails, as well as rhino horn (also heavily targeted by poachers for the Asian markets).
- These scales make up roughly 20% of their total body weight.
- They walk around mostly on their back legs (think T-rex style!), with some species featuring a prehensile tail that helps them climb trees and hang from branches in search of food.
- Pangolins can be very fussy feeders, eating only a few species of ants and termites. It is believed that they can consume upwards of 70 million ants and termites in a single year!
- They don’t have teeth, but instead a very long sticky tongue to catch their food, which can reach over 40cm in length!
- Because they lack teeth, small amounts of dirt and stones are ingested whilst feeding, which aids in digestion inside their stomach (similar to a bird’s gizzard).
- Law enforcement seizures of pangolin scales and meat reached an all-time high in 2019. Worldwide, more than 128 tons were intercepted—an increase of more than 200 percent from five years earlier.
What can you do to help?
- Post on your social media about World Pangolin Day – awareness and education are key!
- Consider making a donation to organisations actively fighting against the illegal trade or rehabilitation of seized pangolins:
Contribute to keeping GVI Limpopo’s monitoring and supportive operations here in the South African Lowveld running by donating or starting a fundraiser through our charitable partner, GVI Charitable Programs.