Today, Saturday, is World Pangolin Day. Little is known about the animal dubbed “the world’s most trafficked mammal” except that it physically resembles an anteater, does not do well in captivity and is over-hunted throughout its range in Africa and Asia.
It’s hunted both for its meat — pangolin is one of the most sought-after types of bush meat — and for its scales, which local healers believe to be a potent and powerful source of traditional medicine.
The pangolin faces the same parade of threats that confront so much of Africa and Asia’s wildlife: Deforestation, climate change and illegal hunting, much of it for the restaurant trade in China and Vietnam, where pangolin is considered a delicacy. More than a million pangolins are believed to have perished in the past decade alone, according to some estimates.
‘Estimate’ is the key word here because so little is known about their habits, Pangolins are nocturnal and largely solitary — they meet only to mate — and give birth to just one offspring at a time.
They have weak eyesight and rely on a keen sense of hearing and sense of smell to survive. They’re picky eaters and subsist on ants and termites, but only certain types. They will eat just one or two species of insects, even when many species are available to them, this, according to a 2015 study by the University of Wisconsin.
When threatened, they curl into a tight ball, using their scales for protection; the name ‘pangolin’ comes from the Malay word pengguling, which means “one who rolls up.”
There is poaching, and then there is annihilation.
The International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) officially lists the eight known species of pangolin on its Red List of Threatened Species as “Critically Endangered” but that only tells half the story.
There’s a war going on, and pangolins are fast falling victim to the numbers game.
More than 10,000 kg (11 soft tons) of illegally traded pangolin meet were seized from a Chinese ship that ran aground in the Philippines in 2013.
An Indonesian man was arrested in 2016 after police raided his home and found nearly 700 pangolins in freezers on his property, according to news reports from the Associated Press and BBC News.
More recently, in October last year, more than 100 pangolins were rescued alive after an anti-smuggling raid on a fishing boat off the east coast of Sumatra, as reported at the time by National Geographic.
The Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) notes smugglers have changed their habits in recent years.
Whereas before they used large, freeze-controlled shipping containers on container ships that could only be accommodated by major seaports, they’re now turning to smaller shipments of live pangolins on small fishing boats that tack from one small port to another, making them that much harder to trace and apprehend.
And all this, because so many people in China and southern Asia believe the pangolin — about the size of a domestic cat — can treat stomach cramps, aid lactation and is a potential cure for cancer.
Some believe pangolin soup — “pangolin fetus soup,” to be precise — enhances virility and helps reverse impotency, even though it goes without saying there’s no scientific evidence to back it up — any of it.
Even so, the scales from a single pangolin can command as much as USD $3,000 across China and Vietnam.
Quite apart from the ethical and moral considerations of species extinction through sheer ignorance and greed, scientists are particularly aggrieved over the pangolin’s plight because it’s genetically distinct from any other animal. It might look like an anteater, but it isn’t one. Despite its nickname, “scaly anteater,” the pangolin is its own separate, distinct species.
A plan to boost captive breeding in zoos, through a specially designed breeding program, may be doomed to failure, some critics say, because pangolins don’t fare well in captivity. They’re susceptible to common diseases like pneumonia, and often contract severe stomach ulcers — not helped by their picky their dietary habits.
All that said, there is some reason for hope. Small, grassroots conservation groups, working on the ground in wilderness areas of Africa where pangolins are known to live, have had some success. Maria Diekmann, director of the locally based conservancy Rare & Endangered Species Trust (http://www.restnamibia.org / http://restnamibia.org/sponsors.html ) in Outjo, Namibia has successfully raised a number of orphaned pangolins from a young age, the first time that is believed to have been done. REST researchers have recently outfitted adolescent pangolins with tracking devices and released them into the bush, to monitor and record their habits in the wild.
The more we learn about pangolins, Diekmann believes, the more chance there is of saving them.
World Pangolin Day is more than an empty cry for help. It’s a bid to raise awareness and galvanize people to action.
South Africa has some of the toughest legislation against wildlife trafficking in the world, for example. The fine for being caught in possession of a pangolin can be as high as USD $700,000 and 10 years’ imprisonment.
Enforcement is another matter, though. There have been few actual convictions to date.
World Pangolin Day can only help get the message out. It may not be a solution in itself, but it’s a start — one small step on the long road to redemption.
10 FACTS ABOUT THE PANGOLIN
(Source: Africa Geographic)
1. The hard, overlapping scales of the pangolin are made of keratin, the same substance found in our nails and hair. The scales continue to grow throughout its life.
2. The pangolin does not have teeth. Instead it uses a thick, strong and sticky tongue to catch its food. When extended, the pangolin’s tongue is longer than its head and body. It is attached at its pelvis and last pair of ribs, and the rest of it is stored in its chest cavity.
3. Their stomach has keratinous spines projecting into its interior. Small ingested stones accumulated in the stomach help to mash and grind food, in much the same manner as a bird’s gizzard.
4. Pangolins are capable swimmers. According to Save Pangolins (http://savepangolins.org), “while some pangolin species such as the African ground pangolin are completely terrestrial, others, such as the African tree pangolin are adept climbers, using their claws and semi-prehensile tails to grip bark and scale trees.”
5. When threatened, pangolins curl up into a tight ball. They may also emit a noxious acid from glands near their rear end.
6. The life cycle of a pangolin in the wild is largely unknown, as they are hard to study. Some pangolins are recorded have lived as long as 20 years in captivity.
7. Adult pangolins live solitary lives, rather than in pairs or families.
8. Pangolins are nocturnal — they come out at night, for the most part.
9. Pangolins eat insects, such as ants and termites, but are fussy in their eating habits, and focus on just one or two species, even when others are readily available. They can eat up to 70 million insects a year, according to some estimates. They have uniquely designed muscles that seal their nostrils and ears shut, protecting them from insects. They also have special muscles in their mouths which prevent ants and termites from escaping after capture.
10. Mother pangolins keep their young in burrows until they are old enough to ride on their mother’s back. The mother curls up snugly around the baby pangolin at night, or if she senses danger.