Pangolin’s, often called “scaly anteaters” are covered in hard, overlapping scales. They are the only mammal to have such a coat of armour. Eight different pangolin species can be found across Asia and sub-Saharan Africa. These scaly creatures eat ants and termites using an extraordinarily long, sticky tongue, and are able to quickly roll themselves up into a tight ball when threatened. This is where they got their name, coming from the Malay word pengguling meaning “one who rolls up”.
Pangolins are solitary mammals which are predominantly nocturnal and are highly secretive. This makes it very difficult for scientists to study them in the wild, leaving many mysteries to remain about their behaviour and habits.
The pangolins large scales are made of keratin, the same material of which our fingernails, rhino horns and bird talons are made. Their scales account for 20% of the animal’s weight. The scales are very hard and protect the pangolins against animal predators.
Pangolins evolved such armour to protect themselves against predators, however in the modern era it is this trait which could lead to the species destruction. Pangolins are now the most trafficked mammals in the world with over a million been poached from the wild in the last ten years.
Pangolin’s are been targeted for their meat but mostly for their scales. Traditional Chinese medicine dries and roasts the pangolins scales as a method of relieving palsy, stimulating lactation and draining pus. As a result, Pangolin scales can sell on the black market for over $3,000 a kilogram, and have even been used to make coats.
The large-scale illegal trade in Asian pangolins and even African pangolins shipped over to Asia is drastically driving down population numbers throughout their range. Rapid loss and deterioration of available habitat places added pressure on the dwindling numbers of remaining pangolins.
Inadequate public and governmental awareness of not only the species but of the trade itself make the trade difficult to combat. There is a lack of reliable data on trade routes: where the pangolins are coming from, and where they end up.Immediately halting this illegal trade and broadening conservation efforts is critical to the survival of this incredible group of small mammals. Things are starting to move in the right direction for the species. Recently, pangolins gained the highest levels of protection under CITES with the decision to uplist all 8 species to Appendix 1, prohibiting them from all international commercial trade.
Local governments are also getting involved as the government of Sabah, northern Borneo, is to rush though moves to make pangolins a “totally protected” species. Once approved by the states Cabinet, hunting the animal will carry a mandatory prison sentence of up to five years. Recently local authorities seized eight tonnes of pangolin scales at a port in Sabah, highlighting the need for immediate action.
The WildAid organisation is doing its best to change the perception of the species for the people who are in the market for their product. Using Rush Hour star Jackie Chan the “Kung Fu Pangolin” campaign has been launched. Using the mass media the campaign aims to raise awareness on the plight of the pangolin.
We are in danger of losing a species of which we almost no nothing about. All we know is that their populations are under enormous strain. The best way to stop such atrocities is to put them into the public eye, making people aware and conscious of how their consumer actions can effect fragile natural systems.