Happy (belated) World Pangolin day

When I say ‘belated’, I mean it. I had intended to start this blog– as somewhere to keep my thoughts on all things animal shaped– right the way back in February. Unfortunately, my inability to find a calm moment to write quickly put a stop to that. So now, seeing that the moment I’ve been waiting for is very unlikely to arrive any time soon, I’ve decided to take the plunge and put something in writing.

And when I say ‘take the plunge’ this is closer to the reality

That ‘something’ is ‘The Pangolin’: or to avoid generalising too much from the outset, the eight species that constitute the genus. The name comes from the Malay dialect word ‘pengguling’, meaning “something that rolls up”. They are also sometimes known as scaly anteaters on account of the overlapping keratin scales that cover many of the species from head to tail. Despite filling a similar ecological niche to their neotropical counterparts (Tamanduas, Giant Anteaters, etc), they are genetically unrelated. Pangolins subsist entirely on ants and termites. As such, they are equipped with powerful front claws, thick eyelids, valves in their ears and nose to protect them from their prey, and a long, sticky tongue, that for one species is the longest of any mammal.  When approached or threatened, they tend to curl up into a ball, protecting their throat and belly from attack. As far as creatures like Lions are concerned, this is pretty effective; when it comes to poachers though, it is unfortunately not.

One resigned looking Lion

From the perspective of those who are involved with conservation efforts in the field, Pangolins are shy and rarely seen creatures, being primarily nocturnal. They change den sites regularly, and live solitary lives save for when they meet to breed or when a female is caring for her offspring. In captivity, they are reported to be inquisitive and trusting once they have become adjusted to their surroundings. They are, however, especially vulnerable to stress, and as such suffer from a prohibitively high mortality rate of 70-80% when it comes to rehabilitating poached animals which have been seized from traffickers. Given their diet and disposition, they do not survive well in captivity, although in some cases they have lived nearly as long as 20 years.

Unfortunately, the word ‘Pangolin’ is never heard far from words like ‘extinction’ and phrases such as ‘critically endangered’, ‘most trafficked’, and ‘illegal trade’. The effects of this are something I intend to dwell on another time, but for now, these are a few of the statistics I find the most shocking:

  1. Over the last decade it is believed that more thanone million Pangolins have been taken from the wild.
  2. Between May 2007 and January 2009, one crime syndicate alone was responsible for having taken 22,200 Pangolins from the wild, as well as dealing in up to 834.4kg of scales.
  3. And this article on E360, which sums up just how much of a challenge preventing Pangolins becoming extinct will be.

And yet, despite the trafficking, be it for traditional ‘medicine’, for consumption by Asia’s burgeoning nouveau riche, or simply for bushmeat, there are people who care. A number of Vietnamese celebrities have shown their support for Pangolin conservation, and even Prince William, despite his brother’s somewhat dubious approach to the care of protected species, has recently claimed the Pangolin as one of his favourite animals. David Attenborough has also expressed his love of Pangolins, giving them a place on his ark of endangered animals. Closer to the Pangolins themselves, the Tikki Hywood trust remains a good source of encouraging Pangolin-related news, as does this blog concerning the release of rescued Sunda Pangolins back into the wild.

Despite this, I understand that, in many ways, I am grasping at straws. Against the overwhelming amount of Pangolins being taken from the wild, and the entrenched nature of the trade of them throughout society (be it the poachers who take them, the traffickers who organise / coordinate sales and smuggling, or their consumers), the outlook is dim. Since I encountered Pangolins a few years ago now, they’ve all been added to the IUCN Red list with the Sunda Pangolin and Chinese Pangolin being rated ‘Critically endangered’. Disturbingly, the African species of Pangolin are not nearly as safe as people once thought they were. The demand has now reached a point where shipments from Africa to Asia of Pangolin meat and scales are often discovered. What sets the Pangolin apart from other poached animals is, that so much of the animal can be transformed into profit on the black market: be it scales for traditional ‘medicine’, or meat for consumption in restaurants. Although conservation efforts have been stepped up in recent months (to attempt to close legislation gaps, promote education, establish species strongholds, etc), much remains to be done to halt the decline of this unique species.


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