Meet The World’s Most-Traded, Least-Known Mammal

Photo courtesy of UbuntuGeek

This animal is poached 82 times more than rhinos and a whopping 1,000 times more than tigers, but do you have any idea what it is? 

It’s called the pangolin. Picture an armadillo dressed up as an artichoke. Strangely enough though, it is not closely related to either. The pangolin and armadillo’s resemblance is a prime example of convergent evolution, where two species evolve separately, but turn out functionally alike because they are adapted to similar environments. In this case, that means digging burrows and eating ants and termites. The artichoke resemblance is probably more of a coincidence.

Despite these similarities, the pangolin is amazingly unique. It is from a distinct lineage of mammals dating back to when dinosaurs roamed the earth around 80 million years ago (human lineages date back to less than a tenth of that time). It is the only mammal on Earth that is covered in scales. These form a very effective protection against natural predators: When attacked, the pangolin rolls itself into a ball and the sharp scales form a nearly impenetrable armor. A second defense involves emitting a noxious acid that will probably never be in the running for World’s Best Smell.

Lion potentially suffering from a Pangolin stink-attack. Photo courtesy of Wikipedia

The pangolin is so unique that taxonomists have given them their own order: Pholidota, of which four species are found in Africa and four in Asia. They are nocturnal, solitary and shy. They have a tongue longer than their body. Some species are able to hang from their tail, while others can dig burrows large enough for you to stand in. The distinctive pangolin also has an endearing way in which they raise their pangopups. Yep, they are really called pangopups. Pangopups are carried on their mother’s tail for the first three months of life. After they get off her tail and start walking, they stick around for a further two years until they reach adulthood, at which point they are old enough to start their own solitary lives.

Pangomum with pangopup. Photo courtesy of Associated Press

The Plight of the Pangolin

Unfortunately, the armadillo and the pangolin are worlds apart in the level of attention they receive: While one is celebrated as the Brazilian World Cup mascot, the other is being quietly eaten to extinction.

A shocking 100,000 pangolins are poached every year. As a result, all eight species of pangolin are endangered, with the IUCN recently upgrading two Asian species to critically endangered. Despite this, their illegal trade is booming. In one particularly disheartening case, 42 pangolins were rescued from poachers in Vietnam and handed over to forest rangers, but instead of returning them to their natural habitat, they were sold to restaurants for over $11,000. While the money has been confiscated, the rangers were never convicted for their crimes—as is often the case in the illegal pangolin trade. 

Their expensive meat (a kilogram of which can cost up to $250) is a delicacy and a status symbol in China and Vietnam, with fetus soup sold as an elixir for anything from men worried about their virility to new mothers wanting to breastfeed. Their scales are also heavily sought-after in traditional medicine, with unsubstantiated claims of curing everything from acne to cancer, despite the fact that they are made primarily of keratin—which is the same, chemically-identical protein found in our fingernails, rhino horns and bird talons. 

What makes them unique—the fact that they are the only mammal with scales—may be their biggest downfall. 

The belief in parts of China that the pangolin has medicinal value is supported by absolutely no scientific evidence. It originates in an ancient belief about the pangolins ability to dig. Their name in Chinese literally means ‘animal that can dig through a hill’, which doesn’t seem like an exaggeration since some can reportedly dig through concrete. However, the ancient myth goes further and suggests that eating this creature should therefore allow people to absorb the strength of the pangolin in breaking through various biological barriers. Needless to say, much like rhino horns and tiger parts, there is no scientific evidence that pangolins have any medicinal benefits.

Pangolin fetus soup. Photo courtesy of TRAFFIC

What can we do?

Successfully protecting the pangolin will involve a multi-pronged approach. Perhaps most crucially, we need to find ways to reduce the demand for pangolin scales and meat. Demand for wildlife products has been successfully reduced in the past—looking to these cases may provide us with creative solutions for the pangolin. For example, although shark fin soup is still a big problem, demand for it in China is down 70%. This is mainly credited to a large-scale awareness campaign on the impact of the shark fin trade. Demand for whale meat has also plummeted in a similar trend thanks to decades of campaigning and a global ban.

Reducing demand can be a slow process, without any guarantee of success. It is therefore also essential that the illegal trade of pangolin in China and Vietnam is tackled. Rangers and wildlife authorities need to be given the resources and training to effectively combat wildlife trade. Stricter regulations and deterrents must also be implemented. 

Little is known about 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, and partly because funding for research has been lacking up until recently. Thanks to a few dedicated researchers, last year, for the first time, the newly assembled Pangolin Specialist Group put together an international action plan to protect the pangolin. New studies are also starting to provide insights into figuring out the best way to protect the pangolins' habitat and make rescue efforts. 

Most of all, we need more people to fucking love the pangolin. More public support and political will is desperately needed in order to shift attitudes, raise awareness and increase funds for pangolin conservation. We must scale-up (ahem) the attention that this small endangered mammal receives. Seriously, even Google Chrome’s dictionary suggests the word ‘pangolin’ is a miss-spelling of ‘paneling’. 

With increased attention and conservation effort, maybe we can stall their illegal trade and bring this unique species back from the brink of extinction. For if the pangolin were to vanish for good, it would be a tragic loss of one of the world’s most endearing and wonderfully adapted animals.

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