All Things Pangolin

In case you didn’t know, 18 February 2017 was World Pangolin Day.  But what are pangolins? And why do they get a whole day all to themselves? To find out, I made my way to the Zoological Society of London’s (ZSL) seminar – “Saving Pangolins: Earth’s Most Trafficked Wild Mammals”. Here’s the speakers:

Dan Challender fields a question at the end of the ZSL talk “Saving Pangolins” (21/2/2017)

From right to left, we have:

Mike Hoffman, Head of Global Conservation Programmes, ZSL

Dan Challender, Chair, IUCN SSC Pangolin Specialist Group

Paul de Ornellas, Africa Programme Manager and Lead on Illegal Wildlife Trade, ZSL

Sabri Zain, Director of Policy, TRAFFIC (trust me, he’s there, but my photography skills are evidently rusty…if you look really closely, you can just see his left shoulder above this lady’s ear!)


The seminar lasted close to 2 hours, but I’ve condensed some of the key points in the form of an easy-read Q&A. It’s time for a crash course in pangolins!

OK, let’s start with the basics. Just what is a pangolin?

It’s a “scaly anteater”. Here’s one:

A ground pangolin, photographed in South Africa.  Photo Credit: JAMBO AFRIKA

That looks pretty cool. Can you tell me some more about them?

Sure. There’s actually eight different species. Four are found in Africa – the giant pangolin, the white-bellied pangolin, the black-bellied pangolin and the ground pangolin (pictured above) – and four in Asia – the Chinese pangolin, the Philippine pangolin, the Indian pangolin and the Sunda pangolin. The four Asian pangolin species are all listed as “endangered” or “critically endangered” under the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List.

All eight species share some common features, but there’s a few physiological differences, such as the pattern regularity of their scales, colour, tail length and so on. The word pangolin comes from the Indonesia, penggulung, which means “something that rolls up” – a reference to the pangolin’s main defence tactic, whereby it curls into a ball, protected by its hard keratin scales. Not a lot is known about pangolins’ behaviour or ecology, and we don’t know how long they live in the wild. We do know they’re mostly nocturnal, and they either dig holes or climb trees, depending on the species. Oh, and they have a tongue that’s longer than their body! 


So why are pangolins endangered?

Good question. Pangolins have been hunted for centuries throughout Asia and Africa, and their various body parts have been used in traditional medicines, for bush meat, or in ritualistic practices. Until relatively recently, this hunting was fairly sustainable, as locals would only catch the pangolins they required for food or rituals or medicinal purposes. But as Chinese and other Far Eastern consumers started demanding more and more pangolin products in the second half of the twentieth century, so the supply rose to meet demand, and indications are that pangolins have been trafficked (dead, alive, or in parts) in their thousands each year since the 1980s. Now the greatest threat to the species is poaching and illegal trade. Their roasted scales are used in traditional Far Eastern medicines, their foetuses are thought to increase virility, and their meat is openly sold in Chinese and Vietnamese restaurants.


How bad is it?

For starters, an estimated 1 million pangolins have been illegally trafficked or killed in the past decade. But the truth is that even the guys on the ZSL panel don’t know what that means in relative terms. So little is known about pangolins that no population estimates exist at a national, regional, or even local level. This is changing, and there are some moves towards tracking and monitoring pangolins in West Africa, but experts can only go on anecdotal evidence for now. And local people across Africa and south Asia are saying much the same thing: we’re seeing fewer and fewer pangolins in the wild. Given the level of illegal trade, this doesn’t come as a great surprise.

In short, there’s a reason this talk was entitled “the world’s most trafficked wild mammals”. Chinese pangolins aren’t commercially hunted any more, since they’re now so few in number that it makes more financial sense for the traffickers to source pangolins from Africa or elsewhere in Southeast Asia for sale in the Chinese or Vietnamese markets. Seizures of pangolin scales, dead animals, and live specimens point to growing trade flows from African ports – Mombasa, Dar-el-Salaam, Zanzibar – to the Far East. This means that pangolins are trafficked on similar routes to elephant tusks and rhino horns.

5 tonnes of frozen pangolins, seized in Indonesia, en route to China or Vietnam [April 2015] (c) Paul Hilton for Wildlife Conservation Society

What’s being done to help pangolins?

More and more. The very fact that over 250 people crammed into the ZSL’s lecture theatre to listen to this talk, with some standing or sitting in the side aisles, suggests that people are more aware of the pangolins’ plight than they were a few years ago.  International protection for the species is also being cranked up. All trade in pangolins and pangolin products is now banned under international law. Of course, that doesn’t stop the trade, but pangolins are at least nominally afforded the highest possible level of protection.

As of early 2017, the IUCN Pangolin Specialist Group comprises about 100 members – ecologists, geneticists, conservationists, and the like – dedicated to the conservation of the species. The aim of the group is to co-ordinate efforts to study pangolins and the threats they face, and devise conservation strategies to ensure their survival going forward.

One of the speakers at the ZSL event, Paul de Ornellas, is currently working with colleagues in Cameroon’s Dja Nature Reserve – a UNESCO world heritage site and so-called “pangolin stronghold” – to get the IUCN group’s strategies up and running. Some of the initiatives being put into practice there will likely be replicated in other stronghold sites in years to come. In Dja, it’s a case of putting boots (and remote cameras) on the ground to observe and track pangolins, as part of what’s called the SMART approach. This stands for Spatial Monitoring and Reporting Tool; the idea being that the more we know about the animals in the first place, the better placed we’ll be to protect them. Researchers are also trying to get local communities onside to raise awareness of the threats to pangolins, and to inform the local authorities of any suspected illicit trade or poaching. Apparently it’s working. In the last 12 months, 4 separate prosecutions have been made, and plans are being drawn up to start tagging the conservancy’s pangolins for satellite tracking.

You can read all about the work being done in the Dja Nature Reserve here:  

Pangolins may be becoming the flagbearers for Dja, but the reserve is also home to populations of forest elephant (endangered), western lowland gorilla (critically endangered), and common chimpanzee (endangered). It just goes to show how important protected reserves are, given the magnitude of human threats.


That’s all well and good, but how do we put a stop to demand in the Far East?

You sure are asking all the right questions! As if pangolin monitoring in Africa and Southeast Asia isn’t difficult enough, we have to try to reduce the burgeoning demand for pangolins and pangolin products in the Far East. Changing consumer behaviour is a big part of this, and how we go about doing that formed the centre of Sabri’s speech at the ZSL last week. Behavioural economics plays a role. So do public awareness campaigns and governmental recommendations – we’ve already seen a great deal of good come from Beijing’s stance on shark-fin soup.

I’m fairly sure most of the people reading this article won’t be eating pangolin foetuses to improve fertility, or rubbing powdered pangolin scales into their skin for better circulation. If you do, don’t. I’m pretty certain it doesn’t work! But you can still do something to help our planet’s most trafficked wild mammals. Check out these links:

If donation or fundraising isn’t your thing, just spread the word! Pangolins need our help!


Transcripts from the ZSL event are now available online: 


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