The Cape pangolin, pictured here, could become increasingly imperiled if trade moves from Asia to Africa. Photo by: Maria Diekmann/Rare and Endangered Species Trust.
It’s that crazy time of year again, World Pangolin Day, where we feverishly run out into the streets and join the thousands of pangolin protectors, fighting for the survival of our scaly friend. Well, no actually, hold on, what’s a pangolin?
The pangolin may look like an armadillo dressed up for Halloween, but it is actually a completely distinct lineage, and could be more closely related to carnivores like wolves or bears than it is to armadillos or other pokemon-like characters. Indeed, it seems the pangolin is more like a walking artichoke than a bear. Functionally, it is natures back-hoe, digging for ants wherever it goes. It is also the only scaly mammal on planet earth.
While the mighty pangolin does walk a bit like a t-rex, it is not the most ferocious of mammals. These scaly crouchers don’t have teeth (who needs ‘em when you eat ants all day) and roll into a ball when threatened. Unfortunately, despite the fact that natural predators don’t quite know what to do with them, they are becoming increasingly threatened.
A Sunda pangolin uses its incredibly long tongue to feed on ants in Vietnam. Photo by: Tran Quang Phuong/Carnivore and Pangolin Conservation Programme.
Their meat is a delicacy in China and their keratin scales are heavily sought-after in traditional medicine. What makes them unique, the fact that they are the only mammal with scales, may be their biggest downfall.
Shockingly, 100,000 pangolin are poached every year. That’s a rate 82 times higher than rhino poaching and a whopping 1,000 times more than tiger poaching. All eight species of pangolin are endangered, with the IUCN recently upgrading four species to critically endangered. However, their illegal trade roars on. The pangolin holds the depressingly oxymoronic title of being one of the worlds most-traded least-known mammals.
Protecting the pangolin will involve learning more about their basic behavior, distribution and population size, reducing demand for their scales and increasing resources to control wildlife trafficking.
Little is known on the current distribution, life history or population size of the eight species of pangolin. This is partly because the pangolin is secretive, solitary and nocturnal. Work is also needed in reducing the demand for pangolin scales and meat. Their scales are touted in Chinese medicine as curing anything from cancer to acne and their meat is seen as a delicacy and a status symbol (a kilogram of pangolin meat can cost $250). We need to look to where demand for wildlife products has been successfully reduced and find creative solutions for the pangolin. Rangers and wildlife authorities need to be given the resources and training to crack down on wildlife trade. Stricter regulations and laws must also be implemented. Most of all it seems, we need to know and care more about the pangolin. Right now, because there is not enough political will and public support, the pangolin is quietly being eaten to extinction.
Authorities confiscate nearly 1,000 dead pangolins. Photo from news.163.com.
It seems, we need to scale-up (ahem) the attention that this small endangered mammal receives (I mean come on, even google chrome’s dictionary suggests the word ‘pangolin’ is a miss-spelling of ‘paneling’).
So, let’s celebrate the pangolin today, the 40 cm tongue that can grow longer than their body, the fact that they can hang from a tree with their tail, and the cute as hell way they carry their pangopups (yes that is actually what their young are called).
Cape pangolin mother with pangopup. Photo by: Maria Diekmann/Rare and Endangered Species Trust.
With increased attention and conservation effort, maybe we can stall their illegal trade and bring this unique species back from the brink of extinction.
Let’s hope next years pangolin day can be a true celebration.
Graph shows confiscation of pangolin trade from 2011-2013. Graph by: Annamiticus. Click to enlarge.
This commentary originally appeared on Laura Kehoe’s blog.