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Coronavirus: A new lifeline for the Pangolin?

Coronavirus has caused chaos around the world. Here in Botswana, while the infection rate remains low, the impact on the tourism industry has left thousands without jobs and struggling. In this tragic time, we’re reminded just how important the Delta is to the country that we call home. But Coronavirus hasn’t been devastating for everyone. Without our human footprint, nature has sprung back like no one could ever have anticipated. Swans swim in Venice’s once ferry-filled canals, and air pollution has reached record low levels across the globe. None of these unexpected good news stories is, however, comparable to that of the pangolin. And, by complete coincidence, I saw a wild pangolin for the first time in my life yesterday. So it seems only fitting that this blog pay homage to these weird, wonderful, and extremely endangered creatures.


A Temminck’s Ground pangolin (Smutsia temminckii) on the hunt for ants.

As we rounded the corner, we noticed a strange creature in our path. Scrambling across the sandy track with its two front feet elevated off the ground and covered head to tail in thick scales, we soon recognised the bizarre-looking pangolin. It immediately sprung into the protective ball that earned the ‘penggulung’ its name, which originates from the Malay word for ‘roller’. We waited patiently at a distance for it to relax, and it continued its journey towards us. Occasionally its long, sticky tongue would dart towards the ground to scoop up a stone or ant. These toothless ant-eaters can consume up to 20,000 a day, using their squished snout-like nose and exceptionally long tongue, anchored to their pelvis, to shovel up their prey from nests, while shutting off their nostrils to prevent attacks and swallowing stones to grind up their food for them.

Pangolin’s are the world’s only truly scaly mammal. Unfortunately, this unique evolutionary trait is exactly what makes them so desirable for their illegal trade.

The defensive strategy of the pangolin to roll into a ball is impenetrable to most predators. However, this protective armour is no match for armed and highly organised poachers. Tragically, the adorable and evolutionarily unique pangolin is today crowned the “World’s Most Trafficked Animal”. It is estimated that in 2019 alone, 195,000 pangolins were slaughtered for their protective scales, which are destined for fashion houses and traditional medicine outlets in China. On top of this, in China and Vietnam their meat is considered a delicacy, further contributing to this enormous black market. Today, the Pangolin is listed as Critically Endangered on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species, despite the fact that the chemical components of pangolin scales are no different to our very own hair and nails. But what does Coronavirus have to do with the pangolin, and how could this global tragedy save a species from the brink of extinction?

As seen here, pangolin’s are solitary, except when carrying their young pangopups (yes that really is their name!!) on their backs.

Scientists believe that Coronavirus originated in bats, who in turn infected an intermediary host in Wuhan’s meat market. Upon human consumption, a pandemic was triggered. The suspect? Pangolins. While this might not sound like a typical good news story, since the outbreak China have banned the use of pangolin scales in traditional medicine- a major win for the conservation of this highly endangered species, and hopefully the step that is needed to bring this creature back from the brink. While countries around the world return to some semblance of normality it is important that we remember the lessons that this unusual time has taught us. Given the opportunity, nature can and will spring back. It is just up to us to make it happen.

Photos and text by Hannah Gormley

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