‘The humble pangolin… runs the risk of becoming extinct before most of us have even heard of it.’ – Duke of Cambridge
Wildlife campaigns constantly publicise the ‘weird’ and ‘wonderful’, ‘savage’ and ‘tame’, the ‘beauty’ and the ‘beast’. Polar bears, elephants, lions, pandas, tigers, rhinos… Pangolins.
I know what you’re thinking… A what? A pangolin?
Nocturnal and shy, ignored in all childhood story books, clearly pangolins aren’t A-list celebrity material like elephants and lions; no wonder most people have never heard of them. However, this little artichoke on legs is in grave danger from the most merciless menace and destructive predator that walked the earth – humans. The grievous plight of the humble pangolin is little known and the horrors they face concealed from the public eye.
Let me introduce pangolins to you and give these enchanting creatures the recognition they truly deserve.
Pangolins are prehistoric mammals who have existed on earth for more than 80 million years (humans have been here for a mere eight). There are eight species of pangolin: four Asian and four African, which can be found in a variety of habitats, from forests to grasslands to savannahs and often near human settlements. They rest by day in burrows and tree hollows, becoming most active during the night between 3-6am when they forage for food. Being nocturnal, they have developed a keen sense of smell and acute hearing, however, their eyesight is relatively poor.
Covered in 900 to 1,000 keratin scales, pangolins have sticky tongues almost as long as their bodies and capable of lapping up more than 200,000 ants and termites per day, equating to approximately 70 million insects per year. If that isn’t a big enough claim to fame, Pangolins are also the only scaly mammal in the world. Mother pangolins are incredibly loving and carry their tiny infants around on the back of their tails until they can walk. They can live to around 20 years in the wild if undisturbed by humans.
The word pangolin comes from ‘penggulung’, the Malay word for roller, which is what the pangolin does as a self-defense mechanism. As pangolins are toothless and placid, when startled or feeling threatened, they do not run, do not hide and do not attack. They simply cover their head with their front legs and curl up into a ball, protecting their soft underside with tough scales which act like medieval armour. Evolution means that this defense mechanism has proven effective for millions of years against virtually all the pangolins’ predators. Except one. Man. Who simply picks up the rolled pangolin and binds it in tight plastic netting.
Pangolins are in high demand to fuel the growing illegal trade in countries such as China and Vietnam. Their flesh is considered a delicacy and powdered scales allegedly have strong medicinal properties in Asian and African traditional medicine. Many claim they hold the power to ‘cure’ numerous ailments from acne to cancer, but to me this really is some stretch of the imagination considering that pangolin scales are made from keratin, the same stuff as human hair and fingernails. A single pangolin can sell for upwards of £1,000, which makes poaching a very lucrative job. Many restaurants sell tiny pangolin foetuses steeped in wine or served in soup which is not only brutal but completely barbaric for this day and age. Animals are often killed at the table in order to prove to the customer that they are consuming genuine pangolin meat, like the image below.
All eight pangolin species are protected under national and international laws but that is not stopping the huge international illegal trade in pangolins. The IUNC’s Red List of animals features all eight pangolin species with two species critically endangered facing their next step as extinction in the wild. In the last decade well over one million pangolins were murdered to fuel the unprecedented demand.
Action must be taken before man has gone too far. The first global pangolin conservation conference was held in Singapore in 2013. The IUCN has formed a new specialist group of pangolin experts to study this secretive and largely unknown species. Pressure is also being put on children’s writers and artists to popularise the animal. Finally, high profile celebrities have begun to become involved in the cause with Sir David Attenborough claiming that if he had an ‘ark’ to save 10 endangered species from extinction, pangolins would be aboard. The Duke of Cambridge, Prince William, launched a new version of the Angry Birds game featuring pangolins to make a younger audience aware of this incredible animal.
World Pangolin Day is held on the 16 February 2019. Please spread the word about these extraordinary creatures and celebrate their life on this planet.