The Pangolin – world’s most trafficked mammal

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If you’ve never heard of a pangolin before, you’re not alone! People say pangolins look like pinecones, or anteaters, but they’re actually mammals that live in Africa and Asia. Pangolins have large, protective keratin scales covering their skin, and they are the only known mammals with this feature. They live in hollow trees or burrows, depending on the species.

They are shy, harmless and world’s most trafficked non-human mammal. Every year tens of thousands of pangolins are poached and killed globally. Their scales are used in traditional Chinese medicine and for their meat which is a delicacy among some ultra-wealthy in China and Vietnam. They constitute their own taxonomic order, and if they disappear, there’ll be nothing like them left on Earth.

Despite its scaly appearance, this species is a mammal, not a reptile. Its scales are actually made up of keratin, which account for about 20 percent of its weight. They are the only mammals wholly-covered in scales and they use those scales to protect themselves from predators in the wild. The pangolin has a small head and a long, broad tail. It has no external ears, but its hearing is quite good. It also has no teeth, and instead possesses a gizzard-like stomach that is specially adapted for grinding food. To assist the grinding, this scaly creature consumes small stones and sand.

Indian Pangolin at Nandankanan Zoological Park, Odisha.
Indian Pangolin at Nandankanan Zoological Park, Odisha.
Image Copyright – Rajesh Kumar Mohapatra


Diet – Insectivore (mostly eats ants and termites). Average Life Span – Still Unknown (estimated upto 20 yrs).
Size – From 30 to 152 centimeters (12 to 60 inches) depending on the species. Vary according to their subspecies, The black-bellied pangolin is the smallest species (about 80 cm long, including the tail) and the giant ground pangolin is the largest, reaching up to 1.8 meters!)
Weight – 4 to 72 pounds from 1.5 to 33 kilograms (3.5 to 73 pounds) depending on the species.
Habitat – Species dependant: Dense forest, forested savannas, swamp forests, lowland forests, and floodplain, grasslands. All species are never far from a water source.
Gestation Period – 3 to 5 Months. Predators – Leopards, hyenas, and mostly Humans.

Species of Pangolins

There are eight species of pangolins. All pangolin belongs to one extended family Manidae. Manidae has three genera Manis (which comprises four species living in Asia), Phataginus (which comprises two species living in Africa) and Smutsia (which comprises two species also living in Africa). All species are facing declining populations because of illegal trade. 

Asian pangolin species:

African pangolin species:

  • Tree or African white-bellied pangolin (Phataginus tricuspis) – Vulnerable
  • Giant ground pangolin (Smutsia gigantea) – Vulnerable
  • Cape or Temminck’s ground pangolin (Smutsia temminckii) – Vulnerable
  • Long-tailed or black-bellied pangolin (Phataginus tetradactyla) – Vulnerable
species of pangolin
Source : IUCN: International Union for Conservation of Nature


The name Pangolin comes from the word pengguling in Malaysia, which means something that “rolls up”. The pangolin was a descendent of the dinosaur, and is one of the oldest mammals and the only one with body covered with scales. These scales range from the head to the tail end and make him look like a pine cone. Therefore, he is also called pine donkey. These animals have many different colors. They can be a light sandy color, dark brown, olive-brown, pale olive or yellowish-brown.The pangolin is similar to the armadillo but is not related to it.

Characteristics and behaviour

The pangolins are native to Asia and Africa, especially in savannas, forests and bush landscapes. Some species live on trees and use tree caves as a retreat, others live on the ground and retreat into holes in the ground. They are nocturnal mammal and they remain in their burrows during the day and come out at night to hunt.

Black bellied Pangolin
Image Source – SavePangolins.org

Pangolins eat ants, termites and larvae and are often known as “the scaly anteater.” Because they have no teeth, pangolins pick up food with their sticky tongues, which can sometimes reach lengths greater than the animal’s body. (Their tongues are quite amazing. When extended, their tongues are longer than their bodies and head combined. Unlike humans and many other animals, the pangolin’s tongue is connected at the bottom of its ribcage. When not in use, the tongue is stored in the animal’s chest cavity.) Like anteaters, pangolins have long snouts and even stickier tongues, which they use to lap up ants and termites they excavate from mounds with their powerful front claws. He only eats certain ant and termite species. When searching for food, he first uses his giant claws and with them, he clears away large stones and digs even in hard ground – and thus breaks open the structures of his food. Then he puts his head in an entrance hole of the building. It penetrates the last corners of the ant-building or termite mound to catch thousands of delicacies every day. When ants attack, Pangolins are well protected. Their ears and nose have special valves that close airtight while feeding or in danger.

Temminck’s ground pangolin feeding on termites
Image Credit – Tikki Hywood Trust

Though they look and act a lot like anteaters and armadillos, pangolins are more closely related to bears, cats, and dogs.

All pangolins are able to roll themselves into a ball as self-defense. This defence mechanism is useful for predators like leopards or lions but completely useless against humans. Their armor-plated scales are also capable of a cutting action, worked by powerful muscles, which inflict serious wounds on anything inserted between them. When threatened, they can also emit a noxious-smelling acid from their glands, similar to skunks except there is no spraying. They also use the fluid to mark their territory.


Pangolins are solitary animal. The only time pangolins spend time together is when they mate and bear young. Female pangolins have a gestation period of five months and give birth to just one live baby weighing 3-16 ounces and approx 15 centimeter long. Females are usually alone with their young but some pangolin fathers will stay in the den until the single offspring is independent. Babies(also called pangopups) are born with soft pink scales that harden after two days. The baby is folded in the mother’s lap or rolled-up body and nursed for 3 to 4 months. It begins to eat termites when 1 month old. At this time the infant begins to accompany the mother, perhaps riding on her tail. They reach sexual maturity at about two years old.

Young pangolins like being up high. Until they’re several months old, their mothers carry them on their backs so the babies can observe how to behave. When a pangolin mother is afraid, she rolls into a ball, protecting her soft, peach-fuzz belly and her baby with the armor of her scales. It’s good defense against a lion, but it’s about the worst thing to do when your predator is a human and can scoop you up with bare hands.

Why they are endangered ?

PANGOLINS, the world’s only mammal with scales, are getting trafficked in tons. In the first eight days of April 2019 alone, authorities seized two (14 & 14.2 ton each ) shipments of pangolin scales in Singapore coming from Nigeria, representing an estimated 72,000 animals and worth a combined $90 million. In February, Malaysian law enforcement seized a 33-ton shipment of mostly whole, frozen pangolins. They certainly are one of the most trafficked mammals in Asia and, increasingly in Africa. Pangolins are in high demand in countries like China and Vietnam. Their meat is considered a delicacy and pangolin scales are used in traditional medicine and folk remedies. All eight pangolin species are protected under national and international laws. But there is still growing international illegal trade in pangolins. 

Based on reported seizures between 2011 and 2013, an estimated 116,990-233,980 pangolins were killed, which represents only the tip of the trade. Experts believe that seizures represent as little as 10 percent of the actual volume in pangolins in illegal wildlife trade.


Most pangolins don’t survive more than 200 days in captivity. 

Keeping pangolins alive in captivity is a gargantuan task. In addition to their unique diet, they require special care because they’re prone to stomach ulcers and pneumonia, usually brought on by stress. Six zoos and a nonprofit in the United States imported 46 pangolins from Togo in 2016, aiming to study the animals under controlled conditions and establish a self-sustaining population. As of early March of this year, 16 had already died.

Why Pangolins are being Trafficked ?

Humans have taken their toll on this scaly species. Large-scale trafficking is driven by a belief in pangolins’ magical and curative properties and a demand for their meat. When mixed with bark from certain trees, the scales are thought to neutralize witchcraft and evil spirits. If buried near a man’s door they are said to give an interested woman power over him. The smoke from their scales is thought to improve cattle health, keep lions away, and cure ailments like nose-bleeds.  

Although their scales are made of keratin( it’s the same substance that makes up human hair and nails or rhino’s horn) and they are in high demand in certain Asian countries where the scales are believed to cure illnesses ranging from cancer to asthma, and their meat is considered a delicacy. Typically dried, ground into powder, and put into pills, pangolin scales are used in a range of traditional Chinese remedies, from treatments to help mothers with lactation to relief for arthritis and rheumatism. Scales can be found in medicine markets throughout Asia, including Vietnam, Thailand, Laos, and Myanmar.

The Pangolin pit – Indonesian police look down on one of the largest seizures of pangolins (Credit: Paul Hilton)

In China, where such treatments continue to be sanctioned by the government, more than 200 pharmaceutical companies produce some 60 types of traditional medicines that contain pangolin scales, according to a 2016 report by the China Biodiversity Conservation and Green Development Foundation. Every year Chinese provinces collectively issue approvals for companies to use an average 29 tons of the scales, which roughly represents 73,000 individual pangolins. 

In some areas, tribes believe a pangolin sightings indicates there will be a drought and the only way to prevent it is by killing the animal.

For many years, the Asian species were the primary target of poachers and traffickers. But now that their numbers have been depleted, smugglers are increasingly turning to African pangolins. 

According to the wildlife trade monitoring organization Traffic, an estimated one million pangolins were poached from 2000 through 2013, mainly for their scales being used in traditional medicine. Pangolins are believed to be the most heavily trafficked non human mammal in the world. All eight species of pangolins, four in Africa and four in Asia, are in danger of extinction driven by the illegal trade.

At least 67 countries and territories on six continents have been involved in the pangolin trade. According to an analysis by Traffic, the shipments with the biggest quantities of scales have originated in Cameroon, Nigeria, Sierra Leone, and Uganda. And they’ve mainly been heading to China.

Pangolins are also eaten as bushmeat in western and central Africa and by some indigenous groups in South and Southeast Asia. Their parts are also used in Ghana, Nigeria, South Africa, and elsewhere in sub-Saharan Africa as traditional medicine. And among some people in Vietnam and China, pangolin meat is considered a delicacy. But the demand for their scales is wiping out these animals.

Conservation efforts

Very little is known about the size of remaining pangolin populations. As nocturnal and solitary animals, spread out over a wide geographic area in developing countries, population surveys are difficult. They give birth to a single young after an extended gestation, so there is good reason to be concerned about the sustainability of high offtake.

Whatever their true numbers, seizure data show alarming levels of pangolin in illegal trade. Multi ton seizures of African pangolin scales are now common. Data suggests that more than 1 million pangolin has been trafficked in the last one decade.  These totals are mostly comprised of a limited number of very large seizures, indicating a highly organized market, and one that may be greatly underestimated. In addition, it appears to be more common for pangolin scales to be detected in mixed loads, alongside part of other species, such as ivory or rhino horn. This suggests the trade is run by specialised wildlife traffickers and some highly organised underworld crime syndicate .

A poacher removes the scales, after placing the pangolin into boiling water. The meat and the scales will be sold on the black market (Credit: Paul Hilton)

In 2016, the 186 countries party to the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES), the treaty that regulates the international wildlife trade, voted to ban the commercial trade of pangolins and further protect the species from extinction. However, illegal trade of the species continues. WWF, together with TRAFFIC, works to protect species from wildlife crime. In Asia, TRAFFIC work to reduce consumer demand for illegal wildlife products with campaigns and partnerships with governments and businesses.

Do you know ?

  • Pangolin trade is illegal in India as per the Wildlife (Protection) Act, 1972. Hunting or trade in pangolins in India is a criminal offence leading to imprisonment for between three and seven years and a fine of not less than 10,000.
  • International trade is also prohibited under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES). In spite of this, the animal is proving to be one most traded species from the wild.
  • The pangolin’s specialized diet makes it very difficult to keep in captivity.
  • Pangolins are more closely related to cats, dogs, and bears than to armadillos and anteaters.
  • Pangolins are the world’s only truly scaly mammal.
  • A pangolin’s tongue can be longer than its body, and it attaches near the pelvis, below the last set of ribs.
  • A pangolin’s scales cover its whole body except its belly, which is covered with soft hairs.
  • over 40 TONNES of scales, meat, and frozen pangolin bodies have been seized so far in 2019 – thousands of animals in illegal trade.
  • Pangolins are on the frontline of a poaching crisis that is devouring populations across Africa and Asia.
  • 20 tonnes of pangolins and their parts are trafficked internationally every year.
  • 159 different smuggling routes were used by pangolin traffickers between 2010 to 2015.
  • China and VietNam are the two primary consumer markets for pangolins.
  • 1,000,000 pangolins are estimated to have been poached in the last decade

How we can save them

Sometimes called “pinecones with legs” pangolins are very sensitive creatures and for the most part don’t do well in captivity. In the wild, they’re slow to reproduce and give birth to only one baby at a time. Pangolins are nocturnal, solitary, and shy—nearly impossible for even the most dedicated field researchers to get a glimpse of this mammal. Just because you can’t see them doesn’t mean you can’t help them. Here are some suggestions.

You can’t save what you don’t love, and you can’t love what you don’t know

  1. African Wildlife Foundation, along with partner organizations, creates public awareness campaigns, like When the Buying Stops, the Killing Can Too campaign—with celebrities like Jackie Chan, Yao Ming, and Richard Branson—to educate consumers of wildlife products about the damage being done to wildlife populations and the lack of any medicinal or magical properties in pangolin scales.
  2. Raise awareness about pangolins by sharing this article or National Geographic pangolin story about pangolins on social media.
  3. One of the biggest challenges facing pangolins is that so very few people know what they are and why they’re in such a pain. Raising awareness among people can help them.
  4. Don’t eat pangolin meat, and don’t buy pangolin products.
  5. Contribute to the new Pangolin Crisis Fund. A partnership between the non profits Wildlife Conservation Network, Save Pangolins, and the Leonardo DiCaprio Foundation, the fund will put 100 percent of every dollar raised directly toward pangolin conservation.
  6. Help kids learn about pangolins and what makes them special. Half the profits from a new children’s book called “Pangy the Pangolin” go to benefit Save Pangolins. Even if you don’t buy hard copy still you can download the digital edition free and help raise awareness among kids.
Pangolins: The Most Trafficked Mammal You’ve Never Heard Of | National Geographic

World Pangolin Day is marked on the third Saturday in February as an opportunity to raise awareness about pangolins and their plight.

These little guys need our help now, more than ever! Pangolins are the most trafficked mammal on earth.

Author: Rajesh Kumar

Enchanted by sound of ocean waves, and magic of sun rays I'm a DevOps engineer by profession and nature lover by heart. I love capturing wondrous moments from nature. I hope through my article I will be able to spread awareness for conserving our wildlife and controlling the rapidly changing climate. Together let's take a pledge and restore the pride of our magnificent mother nature.  

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