Pledge About

Pangolins

Pangolins

Pangolins are small mammals of the order Philodota, often referred to as “scaly anteaters” for their defining physical trait: large, overlapping scales composed of keratin, the same proteins that make up human fingernails as well as rhino horns.

These scales serve as a pangolin’s primary defense from predators. When threatened, the animal curls up into a tight ball, with its scales serving as effective armor (the word pangolin comes from the Malay word pengguling, meaning "something that rolls up”).

There are eight pangolin species, four native to Asia — the Malayan, Chinese, Philippine, and Indian pangolins — and four native to Africa — the White-bellied, Black-bellied, Giant Ground, and Temminck’s Ground pangolins.

Pangolins are insectivores, feeding on ants and termites, thus acting as natural pest controllers. Their anatomy is well adapted to this specialized diet: long claws for digging up ant nests and termite mounds; ears that seal up to prevent ants from crawling in; and tongues as long as one-third of their body length for scooping up prey.

All eight species of pangolin are included in CITES Appendix II, a list of flora and fauna species that are not yet facing extinction but require closely controlled trade rules to avert the threat of extinction. Since 2000, three of the Asian pangolin species have been further protected by a CITES zero export quota for wild-caught individuals, which bans all commercial trade in the Malayan, Chinese, and Indian pangolins. In 2007, the same protection was adopted for the Philippine Pangolin.


Photo by Paul Hilton/WildAid

The Pangolin Trade

Unfortunately, demand for pangolin scales, as well as pangolin meat, has caused tens of thousands of pangolins to be poached every year. Some researchers say that pangolins are the most commonly trafficked mammal in the world, according to the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN).

At least 218,100 pangolins were seized between 2000 and 2012, a figure likely to represent only a fraction of those being illegally traded. The IUCN estimates that at least 1 million individuals have been traded over the past decade.

Over the past several years, there has been an increase in the number of seizures of pangolin scales, as well as whole pangolins, both live and frozen. Overwhelming evidence demonstrates that shipments of pangolin scales weighing in the tons are now trafficked from Africa to Asia, along the same routes as elephant ivory and rhino horn. Some of the same criminals benefiting from the illegal ivory and rhino horn trades are now likely benefiting from the pangolin trade as well.

Conservationists are highly concerned about the speed with which pangolins are being extirpated across their ranges. Indeed, rapid action is required to save these animals. In 2008, only two species of pangolin — the Malayan Pangolin Manis javanica and the Chinese Pangolin M. pentadactyla  were classified by IUCN as Endangered.

All are now threatened with extinction: the Chinese and Malayan pangolins are now classified as Critically Endangered, the Indian and Philippine pangolins as Endangered, and all four African species as Vulnerable.

Pangolin meat is considered a delicacy in Asia, while the scales and fetuses are used in Traditional Chinese Medicine and in traditional African bush medicine. The rapidly emerging Chinese middle class, expected to grow from 300 million to 550 million within 15 years, is believed to be driving the illegal trade.

However, the United States is not immune to this trade and consumption. Records exist of large pangolin shipments destined for the US, and recently the animals have been seen for sale in California supermarkets. 

From Uganda to China, Illegal Pangolin Trade Makes News

Cape/Temminck’s Ground Pangolin, photo by David Brossard

A precipitous spike in rhino and elephant poaching has dominated environmental news headlines in recent weeks, with record numbers of rhinos killed in South Africa last year and sting operations in multiple African nations uncovering elephant ivory bound for Asian markets. 

But look closer at the coverage, and you may also read about one obscure animal equally imperiled by the illegal wildlife trade — and a fraction the physical size of these megafauna.

Endangered Wildlife Moves Up Wealthy Chinese Menus

Chinese police have seized hundreds of bear paws and dead pangolins smuggled into China where they are prized as an expensive culinary delicacy with uses in traditional medicine.

Police made 20 arrests in a smuggling ring in the south-western province of Yunnan, seizing 278 bear paws and 416 pangolins which had been brought in by lorry or train from Yunnan to three neighbouring provinces between December and January this year, according to a report in the Yunnan Daily.

The pangolins, which resemble armadillos, had been injected with tranquillisers to keep them quiet.

Pages