Despite being one of the most unique and most endangered species in the world, the pangolin is not as well known as other endangered animals like tigers or elephants. Depending on where you live, you may not have heard of pangolins at all! As a result, people aren’t always aware of how much danger pangolins face. Yet these interesting animals play a vital role in their ecosystem, and it’s essential that we protect them. Here are 10 things you didn’t know about pangolins.

1. Pangolins Are the Most Heavily Trafficked (Non-human) Mammal in the World

If you don’t live in an area inhabited by pangolins, their appearance may seem imposing. After all, they look like they’re covered in armor! While their scales are an effective defense against natural predators, poachers have no problem capturing and killing pangolins. In fact, up to 200,000 pangolins are poached every year.

Pangolins are eaten both by local African populations, as sought-after bushmeat, and consumed as a delicacy in Asia. In order to prove that the meat is genuine, pangolins are often killed in front of diners before being served.

Pangolins are also trafficked for their scales, which are thought to have medicinal value in both traditional Eastern medicine and Muti. People purchase raw scales and patented medicines in the hopes of curing everything from arthritis to cancer, and some hospitals even promote their use. However, pangolin scales are made of keratin, which is the same protein your hair, fingernails, and toenails are made of. There is no scientific evidence that pangolin scales can cure any form of disease.

2. All Species of Pangolins Need Greater Protection

There are eight species of pangolins worldwide, and all eight need greater protection. Despite being protected under both international and national law, pangolins are still being poached at alarming rates. According to the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), the Sunda pangolin, Philippine pangolin, and Chinese pangolin are all classified as critically endangered. The white-bellied pangolin, Indian pangolin, and giant ground pangolin are now classified as endangered. And the remaining two species, the Temminck’s pangolin and black-bellied pangolin, are classified as vulnerable.  

Although there are currently laws in place to protect pangolins, enforcement is lacking. And in some areas, the local population is unaware that such laws exist. Pangolins continue to be eaten as bushmeat and captured to be sold on the international market. As a result, the populations of all eight pangolin species are declining. Without effective protection, they may soon become extinct. 

3. Pangolins Are the Only Mammals Covered in Large Scales

Pangolins stand out as the only mammal species that is covered in large, hard scales. In fact, a pangolin’s scales make up one-fifth of its entire body weight! Interestingly, the number of scales each pangolin has varies by species. Some species, like the Sunda pangolin, have more than 1,000 scales on their bodies. That’s a lot of scales!

Pangolin scales also overlap, giving them an appearance reminiscent of a pinecone or artichoke. And Asian species have bristles that poke out between the scales. But pangolin scales aren’t just fascinating to look at. They serve very important functions, too! Baby pangolins cling to their mothers’ scales, riding from place to place as the pangolins travel. And all those hard, sharp scales create a pretty effective defense system for the pangolins, too. Even big cats, like lions, have a tough time biting through them.

4. Pangolins Roll Into a Ball To Defend Themselves

Did you know that pangolins roll into a ball to defend themselves? The name “pangolin” even comes from a Malay word that translates to “roller.” And for pangolins, it’s a very effective defense against natural predators. With its vulnerable belly hidden in the center of the ball and its face tucked safely beneath its tail, the pangolin’s natural armor is nearly impenetrable. And to add to their protection, pangolins also emit a foul-smelling fluid from their glands. Most predators simply give up on their pangolin meal and wait for easier prey. 

Humans, however, are another story. Far from deterring human predators, the pangolin’s habit of rolling up when threatened makes them easy for poachers to catch. They need only pick the animal up and carry it away. Pangolins have no teeth at all. And although they have claws, they are used only for digging and climbing. When it comes to poaching, pangolins are defenseless. 

5. Pangolins Have Lots of Unique Features

In addition to their scales, pangolins have lots of other unique features. For example, their tongues can be longer than their bodies! Pangolins use their long, sticky tongues to reach inside ant nests and pull out the insects. But the whole tongue isn’t located in the pangolin’s head. Instead, the tongue is attached all the way back near its pelvis!

Pangolins have other adaptations that help them eat, too. They can close their nostrils and ears while they are eating so no ants crawl up them. And since they have no teeth, they need another way to digest their food. So they swallow small rocks, instead. These, along with the spines that line their stomachs, grind their food into digestible bits. 

Pangolin tails are also unique. They are made up of more vertebrae than the tails of any other mammal. And some species of pangolins use their tails as a fifth limb, to help them climb trees. Once they’re in the branches, they can even hang upside down from their tails. Additionally, pangolins use their tails for balance when they walk. Pangolins are able to walk on their hind legs by holding their tail and front legs in the air for balance. Their tails also help them balance as they stand on their hind legs to sniff the air, allowing them to find the next tasty ant nest to raid. 

6. Pangolins Play an Important Role In The Ecosystem–Pest Control!

Pangolins eat an enormous number of insects. Indeed, an adult pangolin is capable of consuming over 70 million insects per year. Their diet is mostly made up of ants and termites, so you can imagine how beneficial pangolins are to both people and other animals when it comes to pest control. Just one pangolin can eat enough termites to protect over 40 acres of land from destruction! Unfortunately, local populations aren’t always aware that pangolins play such an important role in keeping ants and termites away from homes and crops.

The burrows pangolins dig are also beneficial for the ecosystem. As they dig, pangolins aerate the soil and help turn over organic material. Plus, their burrows provide a habitat for other organisms. Some pangolin burrows have even been discovered that are so large a person could stand in them!

7. Pangolins Can Be Found in Diverse Habitats and Are Prehistoric!

Pangolins aren’t just found in one area of the world. Instead, they have adapted to living in several diverse habitats. Four species live in Asia, and four live in Africa. But the habitat each species thrives in greatly varies. Some live in dense brush, while others prefer open grassland. Some pangolins reside in tropical forests, and others live in dry woodlands. Pangolins have even been found in rubber and palm plantations!

The one thing all pangolin species have in common, however, is they all live in habitats where insects, like ants and termites, are plentiful. The fact that pangolins have managed to survive in such diverse environments for an estimated 80 million years makes it all the more terrible that poaching may now drive them to extinction. But if we act now, pangolins may once again become a common sight in their natural habitats.

8. Pangolins Are [Mostly] Nocturnal

Pangolins are largely nocturnal, meaning they are most active at night, when they emerge from their underground burrows or tree hollows in search of their next meal. As nocturnal animals, their eyesight is not very good, so they must rely on other senses instead. Pangolins mostly depend on their senses of smell and hearing to help them find prey and alert them to predators.

Because pangolins are active at night, hunters must be, too. In many cases, local villagers hunt pangolins as a means of providing for their families. Searching for pangolins is physically grueling, exposing hunters to thorns, slippery mountainsides, and even leeches. Many would prefer to earn money in a less demanding way. And indeed, some have reported that they stopped hunting pangolins after finding other jobs. 

9. Pangolin Poaching Is Big Business

At the opposite end of the spectrum from poor citizens who turn to hunting pangolins in order to afford food for their families, are the poachers, international traffickers, and business owners who buy and sell pangolins farther down the supply chain. There’s evidence that after China outlawed its domestic ivory trade, traffickers involved in organized crime turned to pangolins to make up for their lost profit. And where consuming pangolin is considered to be a status symbol, wealthy diners may pay thousands of dollars for their meal. 

If we are to save pangolins from extinction, we must reduce demand. Today, pangolin poaching is big business, but we all have the power to change that by saying no to purchasing pangolins and their scales. When people stop buying pangolins and products made from pangolins, poachers will no longer profit from capturing and killing them. 

10. Pangolins Don’t Survive Well in Captivity

Further complicating efforts to save the species, pangolins do not survive well in captivity. In fact, approximately 70% of pangolins in captivity die within one year. They are particularly susceptible to stress and disease. Plus, since almost all captive pangolins were trafficked at some point, the stress of trafficking may place pangolins in poor health and at higher risk of death by the time they are rescued.

Some researchers also believe the pangolins’ specialized diet may be responsible. It’s hard to replicate a pangolin’s natural diet in captivity. For example, it’s difficult and expensive to purchase large amounts of insects. And when presented with foreign food, many pangolins become ill or refuse to eat at all. 

WildAid Is Working To Save Pangolins

WildAid is working hard to save pangolins from extinction. We know that when the demand for pangolin scales and meat goes away, so does the incentive to kill them. That’s why we’ve conducted research to help understand the demand for pangolin meat and attitudes held toward pangolins in places like Cameroon. 

And we’ve partnered with wildlife ambassadors like soccer star Frank Boya, actor Jackie Chan, superstar Angelababy, and comedienne and actress Emanuella Samuel to raise awareness of the illegal pangolin trade and encourage people to say no to pangolin meat and scales. And we’ve already seen some successes!

For example, 18 months after we initiated our campaign in China, the percentage of respondents who believed pangolin scales had medicinal value dropped from 70% in 2015 to 50% in 2017. And in Nigeria, we funded the building of SaintMark’s Pangolin Rehabilitation Centre, which has now raised 11 rescued pangolin pups to the point of release. Plus, we’ve worked with our partners to provide training to over 350 enforcement authorities. This training, in turn, led to seizures of unprecedented magnitude in 2019. 

You Can Help Save Pangolins

No matter where you live, you can help the effort to save pangolins from extinction. Raise awareness among family, friends, and coworkers about the plight of the pangolins and educate them about this relatively unknown but important mammal. Many may want to join you in your efforts! And consider taking part in World Pangolin Day, which is observed each year on the third Saturday in February. 

If you live in an area where pangolins or products made from pangolins are sold, say no to eating or purchasing them and encourage everyone you know to do the same. And wherever you are, consider supporting WildAid. Your donations help us continue our work to reduce demand for pangolin meat and scales, strengthen law enforcement, and help pangolins stay in the wild where they belong.

Let’s all work together to ensure pangolins recover and become plentiful once again. 

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About WildAid

WildAid is a non-profit organization with a mission to protect wildlife from illegal trade and other imminent threats. While most wildlife conservation groups focus on protecting animals from poaching, WildAid primarily works to reduce global consumption of wildlife products such as elephant ivory, rhino horn and shark fin soup. With an unrivaled portfolio of celebrity ambassadors and a global network of media partners, WildAid leverages more than $308 million in annual pro-bono media support with a simple message: When the Buying Stops, the Killing Can Too. 

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