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Pangolins: The Complete Guide

Welcome to pangolins: the complete guide! Have you ever wondered what exactly a Pangolin is? What does it look like? Where do these interesting animals come from? Why is it the Worlds most trafficked mammal?

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How can one protect Pangolins? You’re in the perfect place. We’ll take a look at all the ins and outs of this little scaly creatures’ life, where we can go to see it in the wild and what we can do to protect and save these animals.

Learn more about the reasons to visit Africa in our other blogs.

These fascinating and extremely endangered animals are nothing but fun. Mostly, you’ll find Pangolins in Sub-Saharan Africa and Tropical Asia nibbling on insects.

Sadly, you may also come across these animals in Wet Markets in Asia – predominantly China and Vietnam- where they are taken from the wild and sold as they are considered a delicacy and medicinal in some cultures.

If you’re looking for something specific, use the headings below to guide you through the blog. If not enjoy learning about Pangolins and how to Protect them in this blog.

Where can one find Pangolins?

8 Fun Facts for the 8 Species of Pangolin

What do Pangolins Eat?

Characteristics and Behaviour

Reproduction and Lifespan

Pangolins connection to the CoronaVirus

Pangolin Men

What can I do to help Pangolins?

Where can one find Pangolins?

There are eight known species of Pangolins situated in Asia and Africa. However, finding Pangolins can be tricky due to their lessening population, despite their presence all around the globe. All of them are unique in colouration, size, and terrain habitats, however all eight species share many characteristics and all are in need of support of anti-poaching regimes.

The four types of Pangolins found in Asia are:

  • The Chinese Pangolin
  • The Sunda Pangolin
  • The Indian Pangolin
  • The Philippine Pangolin

All of the Asian Pangolins are listed as critically endangered by the IUCN (International Union for Conservation of Nature).

The four African species include:

  • The Ground Pangolin
  • The Giant Pangolin
  • The White-bellied Pangolin
  • The Black-bellied Pangolin

These African creatures are all sadly listed as vulnerable by the IUCN.

8 Fun Facts for the 8 Species of Pangolin

  1. Pangolin babies ride on their mother’s back by hanging onto her scales tightly.
  2. Pangolins are not related to anteaters, sloths or armadillos as one might expect, in fact they are more closely related to carnivores.
  3. Pangolins are the only mammals with scales, making up about 20% of their bodyweight.
  4. They have very poor vision and hearing, but an excellent sense of smell
  5. Pangolins are bipedal, walking on their hind legs with the front limbs and tail held off the ground and used as a counter-balance.
  6. World Pangolin day is on 15 February every year, which is used to promote more awareness for these animals
  7. They do not have teeth and are unable to chew. Instead, they have long sticky tongues that they use to catch the insects they feed on.
  8. When Pangolins are afraid they curl up into a very tight little ball to protect themselves.

What do Pangolins Eat?

Pangolin diets consist of predominantly ants and termites, which they may supplement with various other invertebrates including flies, bee larvae, worms, earthworms, and crickets.

This specific diet makes them extremely difficult to maintain and keep healthy in captivity—they often reject unfamiliar insect species or become ill when fed foreign food.

Wild pangolins locate insect nests using a very well-developed sense of smell. And with their strong sense of smell they voraciously dig for ants and termites from mounds, stumps, and fallen logs with their claws, they also use their extremely long sticky tongues to capture and eat them. A pangolins tongue can reach up to 16 inches (40 centimeters) in length, making it ideal for eating ants in tunnels underground.

The Pangolins’ insatiable appetite for insects gives them a very important role in their ecosystem: pest control. Estimates indicate that on average, one adult pangolin can consume more than 70 million insects every year.

Pangolins have special muscles that seal their nostrils and ears shut while eating which protects them from the attacking insects they eat. They also have special muscles in their mouths which prevent ants and termites from escaping after they have been swallowed.

Characteristics and Behaviour

Pangolins are solitary animals, most are nocturnal (which means they are active at night) and highly secretive, making it difficult for scientists to study Pangolins in the wild. Many mysteries remain about their behaviour and habits today, as the different types are quite unique in their characteristics and behaviours.

Some pangolin species including the Chinese pangolin sleep underground in burrows during the day, and others including Black-bellied pangolins and Sunda pangolins are known to sleep up top in trees. They then venture out into the night to forage for insects.

Pangolins are well adapted for digging, they dig burrows with their strong front legs and claws, using their tails and rear legs for support and balance. Tunnelling underground, they excavate the sides and roofs of passages by pushing up and from side to side with their tough scaled bodies.

They use their front and hind feet to kick back accumulated soil toward the burrow entrance. They can burow a few meters at a time, to retrieve their anty dinner from below.

Chinese pangolins in temperate areas spend the winter months in deep burrows they create themselves. The winter burrows are strategically excavated near termite nests so that a lasting food source during this time underground is ensured. In a Chinese legend pangolins are said to travel all around the world underground, and in the Cantonese language the name for pangolins translates to “the animal that digs through the mountain,” or “Chun-shua-cap,” which translates to “scaly hill-borer.”

While pangolins species share many characteristics and habits, there are also fundamental differences between them. White-bellied pangolins are arboreal tree climbers, while ground pangolins are terrestrial ground dwellers. And some, including all four Asian species, are opportunistic and can be found foraging both in trees and on the ground.

Indian pangolins found in Sri Lanka reportedly live in the rainforest canopy where fruit and flowers that attract ants are abundant. They keep up high instead of at ground level where it is very dark and the food supply is limited. Some pangolin species even have semi-prehensile tails, meaning they can grasp and hang from branches with their tails, which aids them in climbing and general “off-ground” life.

Pangolin scales all over their bodies provide good defence against predators. When threatened, pangolins can quickly curl into a ball, protecting their defenceless underbellies. They also deter predators by hissing and puffing, and lashing their sharp edged tails towards the predator.

Pangolins are dependent on their strong sense of smell. They identify their territories by scent marking areas with urine and secretions from a special gland near their tail. Scientists suspect that these odours advertise dominance and sexual status, and may also help individual pangolins recognize each other

Reproduction and Lifespan

Male and female pangolins throughout all the species differ in weight. However, the majority of Pangolin males are 10-50 percent heavier than females. Pangolins reach sexual maturity at roughly two years old, where most pangolins give birth to a single live offspring at a time after a three to four month gestation period.

When born, pangolins are about six inches long and weigh about 12 ounces (0.75 lbs). Their scales are soft and pale, and begin to harden by their second day in the wild.

Pangolin mothers nurture their young in nesting burrows they make prior to having their babies. A mother will also protectively roll around her baby when sleeping or if threatened by predators. Babies usually nurse for three to four months, but can eat termites and ants at one month old.

Infant pangolins will also ride on the base of the mother’s tail as she forages for insects so they stay away from mischief and don’t slow her down in her search for insects. It is unknown how long pangolins can live till in the wild, although pangolins have reportedly lived up to twenty years in captivity.

Pangolins connection to the CoronaVirus

Covid-19 is a human disaster currently affecting everyone around the globe. However, for this little group of animals, there may be a silver lining. Pangolins are one of the most heavily trafficked animals in the world, and as a result they are endangered. But, in the past few weeks they have been linked to the initial outbreak of the Covid-19 virus in China.

The evidence is inconclusive, but it has already prompted the Chinese government to take action in banning elements of wildlife trade. And although so much more can be done, it’s the small steps in the right direction that count and could be incremental in changing the lives of Pangolins. If more actions like this against wildlife trade follow, the Coronavirus Covid-19 could prove to be a major turning point in Pangolin conservation.

Researchers from the South China Agriculture University announced earlier this year that Pangolins could potentially be linked to the current coronavirus (Covid 19) facing the world. They have identified a virus in pangolins that are 99% identical to the coronavirus in infected people today (Covid 19), and suggested pangolins may have been an intermediate host between bats and humans.

While Pangolins are known to host strains of coronavirus, the research behind the press release has not yet been published in the scientific literature, thus making it difficult to evaluate these claims. Nonetheless, ending the illegal trade in pangolins could contribute to mitigating potential health risks associated with consuming wildlife as well as making promising strides towardsProtecting Pangolins.

“If there is one clear message from this global crisis, it’s that the sale and consumption of pangolins in [live animal] markets should be strictly prohibited to avoid future pandemics,” – Paul Thomson, a conservation biologist who co-founded the nonprofit organisation ‘Save Pangolins’.

The most trafficked mammal in the world

The IUCN estimates that a Pangolin is taken from the wild every 5 minutes, with numbers soaring over 200 000 annually, and over one million Pangolins poached and traded in the past decade. This staggering statistic makes one question what the motivation for this is and how the demand for these little animals has become so high?

The source of this large-scale trafficking is driven by many different cultural beliefs that Pangolin scales have magical and curative properties. In some Cultures it is believed that when Pangolin scales and/or meat is mixed with bark from certain trees, the scales are thought to neutralize witchcraft and evil spirits.

Another ‘benefit’ stems from the belief that if buried near a man’s door they 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. The meat is also believed to have other medicinal purposes like healing individuals suffering from asthma or malnourished kidneys. Some Ancient Cultures believe that the sighting of a Pangolin alone, will bring upon a village a drought or famine and therefore they must be killed immediately.

These are purely all beliefs that have absolutely no scientific basis and are centuries old (many would say outdated). Pangolin scales are only made of keratin—the same substance that makes up human hair and nails. The beliefs that exist in some of these cultures are extremely harmful to these creatures, and sadly are expected to lead to their extinction without drastic change.

Pangolin Men

The Tikki Hywood Foundation situated in Zimbabwe has an amazing group of Men who protect and rehabilitate rescued Pangolins. They have appropriately coined the term the ‘Pangolin Men’.

The Pangolin Men have also become a worldwide sensation for raising awareness for these creatures through photography and for bonding with these precious animals as “if they are my children”.

“No two pangolin are ever the same and even now with each new arrival I continue to learn about this enigmatic species. Thankfully the pangolin is now finding her voice globally and there are more people around the world today who have heard about the pangolin and the very real threat of extinction that lies ahead, if we do not take action now.”

What can I do to help Pangolins?

In essence, the main change for Pangolin trade will likely be seen at the source of the demand for these animals with a cultural belief shift of focus, however in the meantime it is essential to keep the following in mind:

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Jackie Chan: ‘When the buying stops, the killing stops’ campaign

1) Promote public awareness:
This is deemed the most important way to help change the course of these little creatures’ fate. The African Wildlife Foundation (AWF), along with partner organizations continuously create public awareness campaigns, like the “When the Buying Stops, the Killing Can Too” campaign. Ambassadors behind this campaign include celebrities like Jackie Chan, Yao Ming, and Richard Branson. The purpose is 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) Deploy detection dogs.
Through the AWF ‘Canines for Conservation’ program, work with wildlife authorities to train and deploy sniffer dog teams to key airports, seaports, and other wildlife trafficking hubs. Dog-and-handler teams have intercepted pangolin scales across the continent on multiple occasions. This can save Pangolins lives however sometimes too late, as the animals don’t always survive long trips packed up by poachers.

3) Engage communities
AWF works with communities living near these vulnerable mammals and other wildlife to provide them with tools and incentives for sustainable agriculture that allow them to move away from hunting threatened wildlife for food. Engagement with cultural re-education is a sensitive process, yet effective way to save the animals. Should there be a cultural shift of focus in the basis of the beliefs of Pangolins being ‘curative’, protecting Pangolins can be made easier.

Summary on Pangolins: The complete Guide

All in all, we explore how important it is to stand up for these little creatures against poaching and illegal wildlife trade. Their role in the ecosystem is essential and their lives deserve to be protected.

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Should you be interested in seeing Pangolins in real life or getting involved in helping Protecting pangolins, have a look at the sights below for more info on how to do so. If you are interested in learning more about safaris in general, take a look at our Top 10 Safari Parks in Africa article!

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Friday 17th of July 2020

I was, like many people, unaware of the plight of the Pangolins. Thanks for raising awareness with this well researched article. It would be incredibly sad if these creatures were to become extinct.

Amanda Irving

Saturday 11th of July 2020

I volunteer for the African Pangolin Working Group an NGO and South Africa's only govt recognized organization mandated to work with these wonderful little animals. Spreading the word about their plight and financially assisting credible organizations is so important if we are going to win the war against poaching. Well done on the article. If anyone is interested in our work follow us on Facebook and Instagram @africanpangolinconservation

John Gorman

Thursday 9th of July 2020

Well done! It's so sad that the world's most trafficked animal is one that most people haven't even heard of. Just goes to show how disconnected man has become from this planet. When will we learn that "extinction" is forever?


Thursday 9th of July 2020

Wow, thank you, a very informative read! I have learnt so much about this unique creature! Who knew this little creature led such an interesting life and was so much in demand!

Oliver Finley

Thursday 9th of July 2020

Very insightful read! Such awesome animals