The shy, harmless pangolin is becoming increasingly well known for one reason: It’s believed to be the world’s most trafficked non-human mammal. Tens of thousands of pangolins are poached every year, killed for their scales for use in traditional Chinese medicine and for their meat, a delicacy among some ultra-wealthy in China and Vietnam.
There are eight species of pangolins. Four are found is Asia—Chinese, Sunda, Indian, and Philippine pangolins—and they’re listed by the IUCN as critically endangered. The four African species—the ground pangolin, giant pangolin, white-bellied, and black-bellied—are listed as vulnerable. All species face declining populations because of illegal trade. In 2016, the 186 countries party to the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES), the treaty that regulates the international wildlife trade, voted to ban the commercial trade in pangolins.
Pangolin scales are made of keratin, the same material that makes up fingernails, hair, and horn. Pangolin scales, like rhino horn, have no proven medicinal value, yet they are used in traditional Chinese medicine to help with ailments ranging from lactation difficulties to arthritis. The scales typically dried and ground up into powder, which may be turned into a pill.
For many years, the Asian species were the primary target of poachers and traffickers. But now that their numbers have been depleted, smugglers are increasingly turning to African pangolins. In two record-breaking seizures in the space of a week in April 2019, Singapore seized a 14.2-ton shipment and a 14-ton shipment of pangolin scales—from an estimated 72,000 pangolins—coming from Nigeria.
Characteristics and behavior
Pangolins are solitary and active mostly at night. Most live on the ground, but some, like the black-bellied pangolin, also climb trees.
They range in size from a large housecat to more than four feet long. They are largely covered in scales made of keratin—the same material as human fingernails—which gives them the nickname “scaly anteater.” When threatened, they roll into ball, like an armadillo, and they can release a stinky fluid from a gland at the base of their tails as a defense mechanism.
Like anteaters, pangolins have long snouts and even longer tongues, which they use to lap up ants and termites they excavate from mounds with their powerful front claws. They’re able to close their noses and ears to keep ants out when they’re eating.
Though they look and act a lot like anteaters and armadillos, pangolins are more closely related to bears, cats, and dogs.
The only time pangolins spend time together is when they mate and bear young. Some pangolin fathers will stay in the den until the single offspring is independent. Babies are born with soft scales that harden after two days, but they will ride on their mothers’ tails until they’re weaned at about three months.