Pangolins are apparently the world’s most hunted animal and the most trafficked wild mammal. This in itself is reason enough for me to want to write this post. The pangolin had been on my list of animals to write about and then a couple of days ago an article popped up on my twitter feed and reminded me about their plight.
The Telegraph says that “with its armoured shell and peculiar gait, the humble pangolin looks more like an anteater prepped for medieval battle than an animal under threat.” And this feels like a good description. There is something naive and comical about the pangolin and they make me smile.
They are similar to the hedgehog and the echidna in how they react to danger but unlike these spiky creatures, the pangolin’s own defences are being used against them. When threatened, they curl up into a ball and their scales protect them. This scaly armour is too hard for even a lion to bite through. But when it comes to human predators, we just use their helpful rolled up position to pick them up.
We exploit their very defences. We utilise their armour for our own means. And on the whole we don’t need to attack the pangolin. Whilst they are sometimes eaten as a necessary source of food, they are considered a delicacy in Asia. They are also hunted for use in traditional chinese medicine. Their scales are dried and roasted then used to stimulate lactation, cure cancer, help asthma and more. The scales sell on the black market for over $3000 a kilo. In addition to food and medicine, the pangolin is also used in rituals, art and magic and their scales have even been used to make a coat… This is wanton, wasteful killing. This is not hunting for survival.
And if that wasn’t bad enough, half of the pangolins which are killed are juveniles. They are slow breeders who give birth to one pup every one or two years. This means that over exploitation of the species is significantly more likely to result in extinction. This is a critical time for the pangolin.
On top of hunting, pangolins are also suffering because deforestation is getting rid of their habitats. All species of pangolin are considered vulnerable or critical on the list of endangered species.
I’m finding this a tough post to write. We all know about dolphins in trouble and the threats to elephants but because they are iconic, wellknown species, they get a lot of attention and a lot of work is being done to help them. I don’t know how long the plight of the pangolin has been known but I do know that a lot of people don’t even know what one is, let alone the trouble they are in.
Their struggle has been made harder because they are a secretive, elusive species, making them hard to study. They are also solitary creatures, most of which are active at night.
They are equipped with defences, but they are not cut out for the world they find themselves in today. Whilst they have their armour to protect from wildlife, they are not very ferocious and don’t even have teeth. If their scales aren’t enough then they have to turn to their tail which has sharp scales. They also have sharp claws and can emit a nasty smell but if it wasn’t for humans, they wouldn’t need to use these. The claws are for breaking into ant hills and termite mounds, not fighting humans. Everything about this creature, screams protection – in addition to their chain mail style suit, they have thick eye lids and ears and noses which can close up to stop ants getting in. This is an animal which is all about boundaries and personal integrity.
Other aspects to note about this creature include poor vision which means they use their sense of smell to find their food. They also have a long long tongue which can be longer than the pangolin and is used to collect lots of insects quickly. This epic muscle is attached near its pelvis, deep in the chest cavity. It is sticky and powerful with spikes leaning into the stomach. Presumably this is to keep the ants and termites from escaping or falling out. Once eaten, the food gets ground up in the pangolin’s tummy by stones and more spines. This is a bit like a reverse hedgehog really!
These mysterious animals don’t do well in captivity either, humankind really is not aligned with the pangolin’s needs. In zoos they tend to get ill and die very quickly… Unfortunately this means that once captured, a pangolin’s prognosis is very poor, even if they don’t get killed for food and medicine… And if we treated them well, they could continue to serve an important ecological function. The vast number of insects they eat means they are great for pest control.
To sum it up, the pangolin is vulnerable, precarious and it’s defences are being used against it. Watch out for similarities in your own life if you are drawn to this creature. And please, please do not consume pangolin.