The third Saturday of every February is World Pangolin Day, making today the perfect excuse to celebrate these ecological oddities. Despite existing on two continents and across a variety of habitats, until recently, the pangolin was known as the ‘the most trafficked mammal you’ve never heard of’ to the extent that, today, eight species of this unfortunate reputation exist, and all are threatened with extinction. However, a few years ago these unsuspecting curiosities were suddenly thrust into the limelight. Why? Firstly, the world woke up to the fact that pangolins are utterly adorable and need our help and, secondly, because they supposedly ‘got their revenge’ by playing a major role as a vector at the centre of the global Coronavirus pandemic. This unexpected notoriety has led to the evolution of some catchy nicknames, which we’ll be delving into today.
So, where did the pangolin get its name from? Pangolin’s are covered in an armour of overlapping, serrated scales, which are filed down as they dig for their dinner. On confrontation, they role themselves up into a protective ball, exposing these sharp edges to thwart any opportunistic predator, and protecting their head and soft, furry bellies under their chainmail. Appropriately, the word ‘pangolin’ comes from the Malay word ‘penggulung’, to ‘role over’, in homage to this behaviour. But this isn’t the only self-defence mechanism they have up their sleeves. Much like a skunk, pangolins can emit a foul-smelling chemical from their anal glands to ward away would-be predators.
The second name we'll be discussing also isn’t really a nickname, but it is delightful and worth mentioning. That is, a baby pangolin is known as a ‘pangopup’ – adorable, right? Pangolins are generally solitary creatures, meeting only once a year to mate (after the males romantically mark their location with urine and faeces and wait for the females to seek them out). The only other time they’re seen with other pangolins is a mother and pup. The Temmick’s ground pangolin, as we’re lucky enough to have here in Botswana, gives birth to just one offspring at a time. At birth, its scales are soft and white, so the mother must wrap her body around it protectively to keep it safe. Its pups will stay in the burrow for up to 4-weeks, after which they cling on desperately as they ride on the back of their mother’s tail as she goes about her daily business. At 2-years old, they’re abandoned and left to fend for themselves.
The ‘scaly anteater’ nickname is a homage to the pangolin’s diet. Pangolins feast on ants, termites and larvae, armed with an array of weapons. Their sharp claws are used to knock down mounds and excavate holes, while their enormous, sticky tongues (rooted somewhere between the sternum and trachea) can extend by up to 40cm to probe through tunnels. Luckily for pangolins, they even have special muscular adaptations to seal their nostrils and ears shut while foraging, which protects them from invading insects, and unique muscles in their mouths that prevent their prey from evading capture. Since pangolins lack teeth, they gobble up small stones and sand as they go, which accumulate in their keratinous-spiked stomach and aid in grinding the notoriously unpalatable termites down. The final tool in their kit is an incredible sense of smell which makes up for their poor eyesight. Over and above aiding them in tracking down prey, this allows them to assess dominance and sexual status of other pangolins that they might cross paths with.
It is the pangolin’s extraordinary burrowing abilities that have earned it its Cantonese name, the loose translation of which is ‘the animal that digs through the mountain’. Using their strong front legs and claws for digging, their tails and rear legs for support and balance, and their tough scaled bodies as the equivalent of sandpaper, pangolins are able to tunnel underground and make enormous chambers so high a human being can stand up in it. These aren’t just created while scouting for dinner, but also for sleeping and denning in too. While this behaviour is undeniably similar to that of aardvarks and anteaters, genetic tests show that pangolins are most closely related to the order Carnivora (cats, dogs, and bears) while, if you’re in the mood for a fun fact, the aardvark’s closest relative is actually the African elephant! The earliest pangolin fossils date to around 40-million years ago in Germany, suggesting that they evolved in Europe and subsequently spread out through Africa and Asia - a testament to their evolutionary success in the absence of human interference.
The third true nickname we’ll be discussing (and a personal favourite) is the ‘artichoke on legs’. Much like artichokes, the pangolin’s iconic scales overlap all over their body and, as they shuffle along on their back legs, akin to a modern-day, mini T-rex, there is something undeniably adorable about them. Their defence mechanisms work against pretty much everything, except poachers and their multinational syndicates, which are desperate to get their hands on the only known mammal with these scaly features. The first record of using pangolin scales in medicine dates back to 500CE when the burning of its scales was suggested as a cure for people crying hysterically during the night. Today, the lucrative trade in Chinese and Vietnamese traditional medicines is still the biggest threat to pangolins. Despite the fact that these protective scales are made out of keratin, just like our own finger and toenails, and that they have no proven medicinal value, even today, they purportedly cure everything from breastfeeding troubles to arthritis. It is estimated that 1,000,000 pangolins are trafficked every 10 years; the equivalent of one every 3-minutes. With their fussy diets and low birth rates, this leaves pangolins at extreme risk of extinction.
Pangolin scales defend them against even the most fiersome of predators.
The pangolin’s final and most important nickname is ‘the guardian of the forest’. Pangolins are part of a balanced ecosystem and play a critical role in regulating termite populations (if you’ve ever had a termite problem, then you’ll know just how important this role is!) Estimates suggest that one pangolin can eat up to 20,000 insects a day, which is equivalent to more than 70 million insects a year. In doing so, not only do they save us millions of dollars in providing this free ecological service, but they also loosen and aerate the soil for the benefit of all other life forms. These little forest guardians have survived thousands of years of natural change but now lie at the verge of extinction. But you can do your bit to help pangolins. Never buy pangolin products and report any you might see. Put pressure on your local and national governments to do their bit to stop the trade of wild animals, and educate your friends and family on their plight. You’ll be astonished by how much of a difference you can make.
It all sounds a bit depressing, but it’s not all bad news. In 2016, 186 governments announced an agreement to end the legal trade of pangolins, and in June 2020, China increased protection for their native pangolin to the highest level and banned the use of its scales in traditional medicine. Meanwhile, at the source of the problem, campaigns run by local and international NGOs are working to reduce consumer demand, partnering with celebrities and spreading the word that pangolins are not for consumption. The pandemic even played its part, shining a light on the murky underground world of wildlife consumption and its catastrophic consequences when something goes wrong. There are early signs that this is working, with demand dropping, much like the steep drop in demand following the trade ban and education campaigns associated with shark fin soup. Indeed, one survey found that nearly 90% of its participants from a town in China were aware that pangolin consumption is illegal and 95% would refuse to eat it. Of that 95%, 44% would report the restaurant to authorities and 20% would do their best to persuade their host not to consume it (Han et al., 2020). Change might be slow but it is coming. With the help of individuals like yourself, there might even be hope for the persecuted pangolin.