Neither the tiger or elephant or rhino: the most hunted mammals by humans are pangolins, to the point of critically threaten their survival as a species. Discover the only mammal with scales, its current condition and what can we do to prevent the extinction of all species of pangolin in the world.
WHAT IS A PANGOLIN?
The name pangolin (also known as scaly anteater or trenggiling) includes 8 different species distributed by a variety of habitats (tropical rainforests, dry forests, savanna areas, cultivated fields…) in Africa and Asia. They measure between 90 cm and 1.65 m. They are the only family in the order Pholidota: although physically similar, armadillos, sloths and anteaters are not its relatives (order Xenarthra). Most are nocturnal, solitary and shy, so there are still many questions about their biology and behavior in the wild (they don’t usually survive captivity).
Pangolins are the only mammals with scales: they are made of keratin (like our nails) and give them a look like a pineapple or artichoke. Scales are very sharp and they can move them voluntarily. If pangolins feel threatened hiss and puff, curl into a ball leaving the scales exposed and secrete pestilential acids to ward off predators (tigers, lions, panthers … and humans).
The claws allow them both climb as digging: terrestrial pangolins hide and breed in underground galleries and arboreal pangolins do the same in hollows on trees. The tail of the tree pangolin is prehensile to attach to the branches. In addition, pangolins are excellent swimmers.
They are mainly bipedal animals: forepaws are so large that force them to walk on its hind legs, with a maximum speed of 5 km/h. Watch a pangolin walking and feeding:
Pangolin has no teeth and is unable to chew. It feeds on ants and termites, which locates with its powerful sense of smell (the view is underdeveloped) and catch them with its sticky and long tongue (may be longer than the body itself, up to 40 cm). The stones swallowed involuntarily and corneal structures of their stomach help them to crush the exoskeletons of insects. With its powerful claws destroy their nests to access them and avoid their attack plugging his ears and nostrils, besides having an armored eyelid. It is estimated that a pangolin can consume about 70 million insects per year, which makes them important regulators of the population of ants and termites.
Pangolins can reproduce at any time of the year. After pregnancy (two to five months, depending on species) only one young is born (African species) or up to three (Asian species).
The pangolin is born with soft scales, which begin to harden after two days. When after a month come out of the burrow, they travel on the tail of her mother and become independent at 3-4 months. Their lifespan is unknown, although in captivity an individual lived until 20 years old.
THREATS AND CONSERVATION
In addition to habitat destruction, the main threat that pangolins face is direct hunting for human consumption. Although there are international laws to protect them, it is estimated that about 100 000 pangolins are hunted annually. Given the defense strategy of this animal, poachers only have to catch them of the ground. Like other species, like sharks, the food market and traditional medicine are the main causes of directing the pangolin towards extinction.
WHY PANGOLINS ARE POACHED?
- Bushmeat is considered a delicacy and an indicator of high social status in Vietnam and China. The pangolin fetus soup is sold as an elixir to increase virility and improve breast milk production. The price of bushmeat on the black market can reach $ 300 per kilo. The price of an individual can reach $ 1,000.
- Blood is sold as a tonic to improve health and as an aphrodisiac.
- Scales can reach $ 3000 per kilo and are used for almost anything: to cure from acne to cancer. This belief is curious, considering that the scales have the same structure as our fingernails.
All these purported medicinal and magical effects have no scientific basis, making yet more nonsense pangolin smuggling.
The population trend of all species of pangolin is declining in some cases to an alarming extent. The IUCN (International Union for the Conservation of Nature) Red List of Threatened Species classifies them as it follows:
- Vulnerable: all species of african pangolins: black-bellied/long-tailed pangolin (Phataginus tetradactyla), white-bellied/tree pangolin (Phataginus tricuspis), giant pangolin (Smutsia gigantea) and Temminck’s ground pangolin (Smutsia temminckii).
- Endangered: philippine pangolin (Manis culionensis) and indian pangolin (Manis crassicaudata).
- Critically endangered: sunda/malayan pangolin (Manis javanica) and chinese pangolin (Manis pentadactyla).
Because of their status, IUCN restored in 2012 a group of specialists within the Species Survival Commission (SSC) dedicated to pangolins (Pangolin Specialist Group -PangolinSG-). Its main objective are do research to increase knowledge of pangolins, the threats they face and how they can be mitigated to facilitate preservation.
The conservation projects that are being carried out include campaigns to reduce the demand of bushmeat and pangolin scales and the tightening of laws. Still, the total ignorance of populations’ state and low survival in captivity for breeding makes it difficult to design strategies for their conservation.
WHAT CAN YOU DO FOR PANGOLIN?
- Reject any product derived from this animal, either bushmeat, scales or “miracle” products for the cure of diseases. Read the labels of any traditional remedies, especially if they are from the Asian market, and recall that its hypothetical benefits have no scientific basis, so that you can rethink their use.
- Share information. If you own new data on pangolins, photos or videos contact with PangolinSG to cooperate with the investigation. Talk about them in your immediate environment to raise awareness and publicize this fantastic single animal.
- Do a PhD about pangolins. Lot of research on these species is still needed, so if you are a student and you are planning to do a PhD, you can collaborate with PangolinSG with your future research.
- Become a PangolinSG volunteer. Get involved in the development and implementation of projects and conservation programs.
- Make a financial donation so PangolinSG can continue its work.
In conclusion, more scientific research, a change of mind and protection policies are needed to prevent the pangolin become an example of extinct species at the hands of ours, as it is about to happen to white rhino.
- IUCN SSC Pangolin Specialist Group website
- I fucking love science
- The most trafficked mammal you’ve heard of (CNN)
- National Geographic
- Save Pangolins
- Havocscope. Global Black Market Information
- Cover photo by Nigel J. Dennis.
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