Live Animals Seized in Trade - Global
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The pangolin is a shy and solitary mammal covered from head to toe in scales made from keratin, the same material as our fingernails. Their name comes from the Malay word pëngulin, which translates as “roller” and refers to the pangolin’s ability to curl up into a ball as a form of defence.
Pangolins have 40-centimetre-long tongues and incredibly sticky saliva which they use to collect ants and termites, each eating as many as 70 million a year. This helps control insect numbers within their habitats. Pangolins also dig for insects with their long, sharp claws, creating burrows that are then used by other animals and helping spread nutrients and aerate the soil.
Because of their appearance and diet, pangolins are also known as “scaly anteaters” and were thought to be related to anteaters and armadillos. However, they’re actually more closely related to the group Carnivora, which includes cats, dogs, and bears.
The scientific name for the pangolin family is Manidae, and there are three subcategories: Phataginus and Smutsia, found in Africa, and the Manis, found in Asia. In total, there are eight different species of pangolin.
The IUCN conservation status of each pangolin species ranges from vulnerable to critically endangered.
The Sunda, Philippine, and Chinese pangolins are considered critically endangered, each suffering from overhunting, trafficking, and habitat loss.
The giant ground pangolin, tree pangolin, and Indian pangolin are all on the endangered species list. Their habitats are disturbed by human agriculture, and they are trafficked for their skin and scales.
The long-tailed pangolin and Temminck’s pangolin are classified as “vulnerable.” They are affected by human agriculture, transportation corridors, hunting, trafficking, and severe weather due to climate change.
Pangolins are found in areas where ants and termites abound. This includes tropical forests, Savannah grasslands, thick brush, and even cultivated areas. Many live on the ground, sleeping in large burrows or tree hollows. Some, like the black-bellied pangolin, can climb trees thanks to their extremely long tails.
The four Manis pangolins all live in Asia, covering areas of India, China, Malaysia, Singapore, the Philippines, and Thailand. The Phataginus and Smutsia species live in Africa, south of the Sahara desert. Most live in Central Africa, but the Temminck’s pangolin can also be found in Tanzania, Mozambique, Zimbabwe, and as far south as South Africa.
Pangolins cannot thrive outside of their natural habitats, and efforts to raise them in captivity have not been successful. Because of this, and how difficult it is to monitor them in the wild, there are many pangolin facts still unknown to us, including their lifespan.
Sadly, there are many different threats affecting pangolins, the most severe of which are poaching and illegal trade across all eight subspecies.
Despite the international trade bans put in place by CITES in 2016 and new regulations introduced in China in 2020, poaching, trafficking, and international trade are still the most urgent and severe threats to the pangolin.
The pangolin’s scales are used in traditional medicines in both Asia and Africa, although Western medical science recognises no medicinal benefits in the material. Their meat is also consumed in several of their native countries, sometimes as an expensive delicacy. There is even some demand for pangolin skin in the United States for leather goods like belts, boots, and bags.
Pangolins face habitat loss when humans clear land for agricultural, residential, or transportation purposes. When humans move into these areas, it’s hard for pangolins to thrive, as their food source is wiped out by insect control.
Some pangolin habitats are disturbed by mining, quarrying, oil drilling, and other types of human activity. This can cause high stress levels in the pangolins, who are then forced to migrate away from the disturbed habitats, and they struggle to find new food sources.
As nocturnal creatures, pangolins scavenge at night. However, changes in temperature and humidity can affect the availability of insects during these hours. This causes pangolins to extend their search for food into the daytime, when they are more vulnerable to predators and poachers.
Because of its appearance, the pangolin is often assumed to be a reptile, but it is in fact a mammal—the only mammal with scales. They eat insects like ants and termites with their 40-centimetre-long tongues and have existed for over 80 million years.
The pangolin diet primarily consists of ants and termites, along with other insect species like crickets and flies. Their bodies are perfectly designed for tearing into anthills and termite mounds as their scales protect them from bites and their sticky saliva scoops up hundreds of insects at a time. They can also close their nostrils and ears to prevent their food from wandering into the wrong entrance.
Pangolins are thought to be the most trafficked animal in the world. They are targeted for their scales, which are used in traditional medicine in Africa and Asia. Their meat is also eaten by locals in Africa and as a delicacy in parts of Asia.
Pangolins are highly solitary and shy creatures, active only at night, and they roll into a protective ball when threatened. They are quite elusive and hard for humans to monitor, but if you did happen to meet one, it wouldn’t attack you.
Pangolin scales are used in medicine in Asia and Africa. In China and Vietnam, their medicinal properties are thought to fight severe conditions like cancer or heart disease. The scales are made from keratin, the same protein that makes up our fingernails.
Despite their misleading scales, pangolins are indeed mammals. They belong to the mammalian order Pholidota, meaning “scaled animals.” The group containing the current eight pangolin species, Manidae, is the only family of Pholidota still in existence.
Due to their scaly appearance and insect diet, pangolins were naturally associated with creatures like anteaters, armadillos, and aardvarks. However, molecular data suggests the two groups are not closely related. Instead, it’s currently thought that Carnivora—a group containing cats, dogs, and bears—are the pangolin’s closest living relatives.
Pangolins don’t lay eggs. They generally mate once a year (with some species having gestation periods of up to 372 days) and bear between one and three young. Baby pangolins, known as pangopups, ride on their mothers’ tails until they are old enough to walk by themselves.
Depending on their species, pangolins can weigh anything from 1.6 to 33 kilograms and are between 115 and 140 centimetres long. Their tongues can reach up to 40 centimetres, and the tail of the long-tailed pangolin is almost double its body length, earning it the record for the mammal with the most vertebrae.
Of all the pangolin characteristics, the strong, sharp scales covering their bodies from snout to tail are definitely the most distinctive. The only places without scales are the undersides of their limbs. They have small heads, small eyes, and no teeth, relying more on their sense of smell than their eyesight to get around and find food. The pangolin’s tail is long and heavy, which helps with balance while climbing or burrowing into anthills.
Due to their nocturnal and solitary lifestyle, pangolins are very difficult to monitor. There is more data on the number of pangolins trafficked—an estimated 895,000 between 2000 and 2019—than on the number living in the wild. Organisations like the IUCN are confident that the demand for pangolin trade is not sustainable with the number of wild pangolins.
IFAW works with governments, scientists, and other conservation groups to save the pangolin and end this poaching crisis. In 2016, IFAW led a group of conservation experts to bring attention to the international need for greater pangolin protection. As a result of our joint effort between multiple NGOs and governments, CITES listed all eight species of pangolins from Appendix II to Appendix I, prohibiting the international trade of pangolins and their body parts for commercial purposes.
IFAW works to protect pangolins and prevent trafficking through every step of the illegal trade chain, from training wildlife rangers on the ground to mobilising consumers to reduce demand. We support cross-border collaboration among law enforcement agencies to disrupt wildlife trafficking networks. After two enforcement workshops IFAW facilitated between China and Vietnam, large seizures of elephant ivory and pangolin scales were made in key Asian ports. We also work with internet companies to make internet unavailable for illegal trade of wildlife and their products. In 2018, IFAW, WWF and TRAFFIC jointly convened an international Coalition of global internet companies, removing millions of illegal wildlife trade postings since established.
Pangolins are the most trafficked mammal in the world and need all the help they can get.