Today is the Sixth World Pangolin Day. I am taking this opportunity to raise awareness about the plight of this unique mammal, as pangolin numbers are dangerously diminishing.
World Pangolin Day 2017 Source: Sixth Annual World Pangolin Day is 18 February 2017
Unfortunately the reason for the Pangolin to be given an annual day of recognition is not a celebratory one; all pangolin populations are declining, due to the illegal trade for meat (it’s considered a delicacy in China and Vietnam) and scales (used in traditional Chinese medicine, despite no evidence of medicinal properties).
Not everyone is familiar with this small scaly creature; so I will provide some information about just who all the fuss is about before going on to explain a little more of the plight of the pangolin.
Pangolins, also known as scaly anteaters, are unique creatures that are covered in hard, plate-like scales. They are insectivorous (feeding nearly exclusively on ants and termites) and are mainly nocturnal.
Their name, “pangolin”, is derived from the Malay word “pengguling”, which loosely translates to “something that rolls up”.
Most people are not aware but, there are actually a total of eight different species of pangolin on our planet. Pangolins are can be found occupying a wide range of habitats; they are just as content in sub-tropical and tropical forests, thick bush, grasslands, dry woodlands, as, open savannah regions and even in agricultural areas like rubber plantations.
Four pangolin species live in Asia:
- Indian Pangolin (also called Thick-tailed Pangolin), Manis crassicaudata
- Phillipine Pangolin, Manis culionensis
- Sunda Pangolin (also called Malayan Pangolin), Manis javanica
- Chinese Pangolin, Manis pentadactyla
Four pangolin species live in Africa:
- Three-Cusped Pangolin (also called African White-Bellied Pangolin and Tree Pangolin), manis tricuspis
- Giant Ground Pangolin, Manis gigantea
- Cape Pangolin (also called Temminck’s Pangolin), Manis temminckii
- Long-Tailed Pangolin (also called Black-Bellied Pangolin), Manis tetradactyla
Pangolins are the only mammals known to have plate-like scales. When threatened, they are able to roll up into a ball, forming an armoured exterior. The scales are made of keratin (the same protein that makes up human hair and nails), which hardens as the pangolins reach maturity.
Similar to skunks, pangolins can secrete a foul smelling odour from the glands near their anus, which they use to mark their territory. Unlike skunks however, they are not able to spray the odour; the foul smelling acid is used as a deterrent from predators rather than as a defence.
Pangolins have poor eyesight, relying on their hearing and keen sense of smell to locate their prey at night. They have long, powerful, curved claws to tear open anthills or termite mounds and get to the insects inside.
Pangolins have no teeth; they use their long, sticky and elongated tongue to retrieve the insects. The tongue is attached near their pelvis and last pair of ribs, and when fully extended is longer than the entire head and body. At rest the tongue retracts into a sheath deep in the chest cavity.
Plight of the pangolin
Pangolins are considered one of the world’s most heavily trafficked mammal. Quietly these defenseless creatures are being slaughtered to the point of extinction; with it being estimated that more than 100,000 pangolins have been victims of the illegal wildlife trade since 2011.
While pangolins have been a staple of traditional Chinese medicine for thousands of years, the increasing human populations and greater wealth across China have increased demand. Pangolin foetuses, scales, and blood are used in medicine, the meat is considered a delicacy, and stuffed pangolins are sold as souvenirs. So now, basically to meet a demand based on superstitions and exploited by greed, this scaly ant eater could soon join the ranks of the Dodo. Experts have warned that the illegal trade in pangolins will render them extinct within our lifetime; yet most people have never heard of a pangolin!
The continued pangolin decline comes despite legislation banning hunting the species throughout Southeast Asia. However a declining population of pangolins coupled with intensified efforts to curb illegal trade have resulted in rising prices for pangolin products. These are factors that have had the negative impact of enticing organised crime gangs to become involved in smuggling of these animals.
As if things were not bad enough for the pangolin, their fragile habitats are being rapidly destroyed by corporate greed. The critically endangered Sunda pangolin relies on their rainforest home in Indonesia, but as many are aware, such habbitat is being systematically destroyed for the production of Conflict Palm Oil, paper pulp, and fiber used in synthetic clothing.
As more people around the world learn about pangolins and the threats to them. This can result in more support for policy reform, scientific research, and more conservation efforts. You can help by spreading the word about pangolins and how they’re in trouble.
Some Pangolin Facts
- The pangolin’s closest relatives are carnivores, but they are the only mammals that are covered in scales.
- Pangolin scales are made of keratin, just like our finger nails, and make up 20 per cent of their body weight.
- The word ‘pangolin’ comes from the Malay word ‘penggulung’, which means ‘one that rolls up’. When it is threatened a pangolin will curl itself into a tight ball, which is impenetrable to predators.
- The mammal can consume up to 20,000 ants a day. That’s about 73 million ants a year!
- Pangolins can close their ears and nostrils using strong muscles. This helps protect them from ant attacks.
- They have long, sticky tongues, which are often longer than their body and attached near its pelvis and last pair of ribs. If a pangolin fully extends its tongue, it is longer than the animal’s head and body!
- Pangolins don’t have teeth, so they can’t chew. Instead, they have keratinous spines in their stomach and swallow stones that help them grind up their food in much the same manner as a bird’s gizzard.
- There are eight pangolin species, four Asian and four African – though fossil evidence suggests that they evolved in Europe. They are all threatened species and listed in the IUCN Red List as either Vulnerable, Endangered or Critically Endangered.
- Pangolins are hunted for meat, for use in traditional medicine and as fashion accessories. The large-scale illegal trade in Asian pangolins is drastically driving down their numbers.