Learn about pangolins
Pangolins are incredibly unique mammals, found in both Asia and Africa. There are eight species of pangolins currently in existence, with all of them threatened with possible extinction and being listed on the IUCN red list (International Union for the Conservation of Nature). The black-bellied, white-bellied, ground and giant pangolin are the four African species. Their Asian counterparts comprise the Chinese, the Sunda, the Philippine and the Indian pangolin.
Although unknown to many, pangolins are sadly the most trafficked mammal in the world.
Poaching has, and continues to be the cause of severe population loss. Pangolins are not only hunted for their meat which is considered a delicacy on both continents, but are also sought after for their scales. On the Asian market these scales are believed to remedy countless physical conditions and ailments, ranging from arthritis to cancer. While there is no medical evidence of such effects,
animals continue to be removed from the wild, being sold on black markets both as whole animals, or in parts, and even traded between continents.
Pangolins survive on a diet of mostly ants and termites, and occasionally other small invertebrates such as earthworms. They have no teeth for either foraging or protecting themselves, and swallow small stones in order to grind up the food they ingest. Unable to do much more in defense than ward off predators with a slap of their scaly tail, pangolins are better suited to waiting out dangerous situations. They do this by rolling into a ball, which, as most of their body is covered in hard scales, creates a shield to protect their vulnerable undersides from predators.
To further protect them, mothers tend to wrap themselves around their young, and this rolling technique may even deter the likes of big cats such as lions, tigers, and leopards!
By waiting like this for the predator to move on, pangolins can be lucky enough to remain alive. It is this behavior however that renders these animals extremely vulnerable to human exploitation as there is no need for a dangerous pursuit – they may simply be picked up and further handled with no risk of injury to poachers. Pangolins are able to release secretions in a similar way to skunks, which though is useful in the wild to mark territories, does not complicate capture by humans. With the exception of two species (the ground and the giant pangolin), pangolins are able to climb and live in trees. Though their long claws offer little in the way of self-defense, they aid tree climbing, and provide easy access to ant and termite nests. With a sticky tongue that can extend to longer than their body length, they can reach into the core of the nests and use it to efficiently gather food. While feeding, it is not unusual that pangolin’s face becomes covered in crawling insects, and for this reason they can not only close their nostrils but also their ears when necessary! While all species of pangolin are protected by national and international laws, such as CITES (Convention of International Trade in Endangered Species),
exploitation continues with approximately one million pangolins trafficked illegally in the last 10 years.
In addition to this, the threats caused by habitat loss massively influence their population decline, with conversion of land to agricultural use being a major factor included in this. The effects of these pressures are exaggerated by the small litter size of pangolins, which in most cases is a single offspring, making it harder for pangolin populations to recover. The loss in pangolin numbers is extremely concerning, not only for the species itself but for the ecosystem they are part of. The decline of a single species may influence other trophic levels such as that of their prey, possibly allowing populations of other species to explode or decline as a result, upsetting the balance of the ecosystem. Pangolins can consume roughly 70 million insects per year so it is not unexpected that without these animals, there could be a lack of natural pest control. Developments as a result of the Coronavirus outbreak, particularly in Asia, have brought about a temporary decrease, and potential for a ban in trafficking and consumption of some wild animals, with the enforcement of stricter regulations and penalties. This includes pangolins and pangolin derived products, as the Coronavirus is speculated to have transferred from certain animals, including bats and pangolins.
Illegal wildlife markets provide a particularly illustrious environment for disease and pathogens to spread as the captured animals are held in highly restricted quarters, exposed to the blood and secretions of others.
They may be sold alive, or even slaughtered on site, resulting in extremely unsanitary conditions. As a response to possible human safety concerns, China declared the phasing out of the use of pangolin scales in traditional Chinese medicine. Though these steps were introduced in the interest of safeguarding human health and still leave many loopholes, at the same time it proved positive for these animals. While rehabilitation and reintroduction programs of affected pangolins provide an excellent way to support their conservation, they find it difficult to thrive in captivity. It is hard to provide the proper care as so little is still known about them and often ends up with the pangolins not surviving. This makes it even more critical to further support their conservation through funding conservation organizations, eco-tourism practices, enabling additional research, protecting their habitat, as well as avoiding the support of their illegal trade. This may enable them to have a chance to survive in the wild and prevent their extinction.
Species Fun Fact
Pangolin young stay with their mother for their first three months of life. During this time, they ride on their mother’s tail, accompanying her whilst foraging.
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All information was collected and up to date in 2020.