One of the things I love most about guiding is watching the joy my guests get from seeing an animal for the very first time; so imagine how much better it is when that person didn’t even know the animal existed before they arrived at Londolozi. It is priceless to see the look they get as they clap eyes on an animal whose appearance fits somewhere between a dinosaur, an artichoke and a small dog covered in giant toenails that they couldn’t possibly have thought up for themselves. Many South Africans will know this animal as their ever-elusive nemesis and for those who don’t know this creature; I’d like to introduce you to the pangolin.

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Meet the strange and fabulous-looking pangolin. One of the rarer species we are fortunate enough to find on occasion here at Londolozi. Photo: Amy Attenborough

There are eight species of this scaly creature, four of which are found in Africa and four in Asia. Two of the Asian species are listed as endangered and the others are all rapidly declining in number. The astonishing and little-known reason for this is that the pangolin is the most trafficked animal on the planet.

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This species is the Cape or Temminck’s Ground Pangolin and is the only species we find in Southern Africa. The other African species include the Giant ground pangolin, White-bellied or Tree pangolin and the Black-bellied or Long-tailed pangolin.  Photo: Amy Attenborough

Conservative estimates say that 10 000 pangolins are trafficked every year. Annamiticus, an advocacy group, says if you assume only 10% to 20% of the actual trade is reported by the news media, the true number trafficked between 2011 and 2013 was between 116,990 and 233,980. A CNN article on the issue reported that in August 2013, nearly 7 tons of pangolins from Indonesia were seized at a port in Haiphong, Vietnam. In 2008, almost 14 tons of pangolins were seized in Sumatra, likely bound for Vietnam or China. This problem is not only an Asian one. Last year more than 6 tons of African pangolin scales were seized before export to Asia.

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The pangolin can walk on all fours or even on its two back legs, whilst using its tail for balance. Notice its very well developed claws and forearms which it uses to break into ants nests and termite mounds. Photo: Amy Attenborough

Because the demand for these animals is so high, the price for them has followed suit. In parts of Asia, pangolin scales go for about $600-$1000 per kilo and in restaurants the meat costs about $350 per kilo. You apparently have to order the whole animal, which weighs at least 5kg and so the meal can end up costing a whopping $1750. Eating the meat is considered a status symbol and the scales are eaten as a treatment for lactation issues, blood circulation problems and cancer. And carrying a pangolin tongue in your pocket is supposedly considered good luck.

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It is ironic to think that the scales of the pangolin, designed to protect this animal, is actually what is leading to its demise. The scales have become so sought after in Asia that they sell for around $600-$1000 per kg. Photo: Don Heyneke

Apart from these statistics here are some of my top ten facts to know about this interesting little critter:

1)Pangolins are ancient animals. The earliest pangolin fossils date back to the Eocene epoch, 35 million to 55 million years ago, shortly after the dinosaurs went extinct.

2) Despite their reptilian appearance, they are in facts mammals and are covered in hard scales that when they roll up make them virtually impenetrable and protect their soft face and undersides.

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The pangolin’s hard keratinous scales cover most of its body apart from its soft under belly and face and make up about 20% of its overall body weight. Photo: Amy Attenborough

3)Despite popular belief they are actually more closely related to true carnivores than to anteaters, sloths or armadillos, although this relationship is still unclear.

4)The ground pangolin got its common name from the Malay word ‘pengguling’, meaning ‘rolling up’. Unfortunately, this practice makes it even easier for humans to capture and smuggle them, as hunters can simply pick them up.

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Once balled up like this, the pangolin becomes like an impenetrable fortress that even lions, leopards and tigers cannot break into. They do also have the ability to thrash their scaled tail about while trying to get away, which is enough to cut a predator’s skin. If none of these tactics work, they may even emit a noxious-smelling acid from glands near the anus to try to chase away the predator. Photo: Don Heyneke

5) They have large claws and powerful forearms, which they use to dig into the ground as well as termite mounds for food. It is believed that pangolins eat more than 70 million insects per year, mostly made up of ants and termites.

6) They have a long, sticky tongue that they use to lap up their food. Amazingly the tongue is actually attached near its pelvis and last pair of ribs. At rest the tongue retracts into a sheath in its chest cavity and in some of the smaller pangolin species, their tongue is actually longer than their entire body length.

7) They do not have teeth and so their food is ground down in their muscular stomach, which also has keratinous spines projecting into its interior, and is ground against soil and small pebbles ingested during the feeding process, similar to a bird’s gizzard.

8) They have an incredibly good sense of smell and can actually close their ears and nostrils when feeding to keep insects out.

9) They live about twenty years, give birth to one baby at a time, which they wean at about three months and which catches rides on its’ mothers back or tail.

10) David Attenborough named the sunda pangolin as one of his ten species he would take on his ark to save from extinction.

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This was one of my most special encounters with a pangolin who no mater where I went, kept walking towards me and bumping into me. Although their eye sight is poor, they have a fantastic sense of smell which they use to locate their food. Photo: Amy Attenborough

The Pangolin is an obscure looking creature and may not be the most beautiful or charismatic of the African species. However it is an incredibly special animal that needs our protection, particularly at a time like this when the market looks to our African population as a source to replace the dwindling Asian population. Although these extraordinary creatures are not in the limelight, they are a reminder of the diversity of species and design on planet earth. No one would miss a species they didn’t know existed and so it is wild places like Londolozi that are so important because they are a space where people have the opportunity to meet and fall in love with some of our weirder African animals.

Do you have any ideas or suggestions for things that we could do to protect this vulnerable species?

Written and Photographed by Amy Attenborough, Londolozi Ranger

Filed under Wildlife

About the Author

Amy Attenborough

Media Team

Amy has a rich field-guiding history, having spent time at both Phinda and Ngala Game Reserves. This diversity of past guiding locations brought her an intimate understanding of different biomes across South Africa, and she immediately began making a name for herself as ...

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10 Comments

on The Pangolin: Ten Things You Should Know about the World’s Most Trafficked Animal

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Marinda Drake
Guest

Great blog Amy. Interesting facts. Unfortunately I have never seen a pangolin in the wild. I hope I will be able to see one some day and that they never become extinct. We need to create awareness of the plight of these endangered animals and the fact that they are not going to cure any illnesses. We need to keep them safe for future generations.

colin mccabe
Guest

Hi Amy as you may recall Brandon and I came looking for this wonderful creature in the Ngala area not so long ago. Still have not seen one but will try again this winter. Thanks for a great article. Regards Colin

Amy Attenborough

Hi Colin. Of course I remember! I remember we even went scouting around that one particular termite mound in the west of the reserve where a pangolin had been seen a couple of times; sadly to no avail. Any luck with the aardvarks or aardwolfs? Please send love to Brandon. I hope he is still working towards becoming a ranger one day!

Christa Blessing
Guest

Dear Amy and dear all at Londolozi,
I just love reading all your articles on Londolozi’s wildlife. Some make me really sad, like the one about the baby leopard who got killed, others I find so informative, like the one on the Pangolin.
Every day when I read one of your blogs I just wish I could be at Londolozi again (I tried to come in May, however, you were fully booked – next year, maybe).
What can we do to help preserve this wonderful African wildlife? I don’t know, though I think what we should try is educate, educate and educate people. Tell all your Chinese guests (and of course, if there are any, the Vietnamese as well) that they should stop using parts of wild animals for so-called medical or other purposes. Stop ALL hunting, also legal hunting, because it confuses things.
I am going to have a talk on African wildlife and safaris in southern and eastern Africa here in Switzerland in February 2016 and you can be sure that I will stress the fact that so many of these wonderful animals are going to become extinct because of mankind’s foolish behavior. On my homepage e.g. I propagate the use of human horn (hair, clippings of nails) instead of rhino horn. I have also written to European zoos to educate people as the zoo in Singapore has done for many years that they should not use iron, or eat pangolins, or buy products made of ivory.
Kind regards and thanks again for your great blogs,
Christa

Amy Attenborough

Hi Christa. Thank you very much for your thoughts. It is so true that education is primary to the success of conservation. It sounds like you are doing fantastic work in Switzerland, so thank you for your support! We look forward to seeing you back here at Londolozi.

Christa Blessing
Guest

Sorry: mistake in my post:

it should be horn of course, not “iron” in my last sentence.

Ann Seagle
Guest

Thank u for always being our teacher.

Jill Grady
Guest

Very interesting blog Amy and shocking statistics on the numbers being trafficked! Hopefully through education, this will end and this very special animal will thrive in numbers again. I had never even heard of a Pangolin until I was at Londolozi 2 years ago, but I’ve never been fortunate enough to actually see one. Your pictures are incredible…thank you so much for sharing!

Wendy Hawkins
Guest

Oh this makes me so sad & angry that all our beautiful wildlife seems to becoming “potions” for idiots to do what??? They belong where they are & not be harmed! Always love seeing these wonderful blogs thank you Amy. Your blog is very factual & so interesting 🙂

Gary R. Collins, AIA
Guest

The Chinese have such a large population and espouse so many unscientific notions regarding health potions, sexual potency, and “good” fortune that they must take the major responsibility for providing the market for destruction of unique and endangered species. Pangolin scales? Tiger penises? Shark fins? Manta Ray meat? Unconscionable, period. Sometimes the feet of the culpable simply must be held to the fire.

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