This is a Pangolin. It is the only mammal covered completely with scales instead of fur. Most people will never see a pangolin in the wild. Most people do not realise that the pangolin could be gone before we realise it was even there.
There are only eight species of this scaled and mystical creature. Four of them, The Indian pangolin, Formosan pangolin, Sunda pangolin and Palawan pangolin are found in Asia and are different because they have tiny bristles between their scales. In Africa the four species found south of the Sahara are the Temminck’s ground pangolin, Tree pangolin, Giant pangolin and the Long-tailed pangolin. All eight species are listed as endangered or vulnerable on the IUCN red list.
Though wide spread and found in National Parks from Virunga in the Congo to Kruger In South Africa, you are more likely to see the big five before you get to see a pangolin. In fact, sightings of the pangolin are so rare that it is traditionally considered to be a royal animal. It is prized not only for its scarcity but also for its scales and reportedly succulent meat, fit only for kings.
In the Congo, the Lele people consider it to be part fish (the scales) and part human because it only gives birth to a single offspring. This in-between-ness makes it a spiritually powerful being. A fact well documented by anthropologist Mary Douglas in her now famous book Purity and Danger (1966, Chapter 10 deals with the Pangolin Cult).
The name pangolin comes from the Malay word “pengguling” which, loosely translated, means something rolled up. Also known as the scaly ant-eater, pangolins roll into a tight ball when threatened. Sadly this also makes them a soft target for poachers who need only scoop them up and place them into a sack to be further trafficked.
There are some pretty amazing facts about pangolins. For a start, their soft sticky tongues can be longer than their bodies. They have powerful claws that they use to burrow into anthills to get to their favourite food, ants and termites. Its thought that a single pangolin can consume up to 70 million insects annually. That is quite a lot of ants!
Funnily, pangolins do not have teeth but ‘chew’ instead with stones found in their digestive tracts. In addition to these adaptations, pangolins are able to seal off their ears and nostrils when eating to prevent attack from their angry dinner. Because of their highly specialised diet, pangolins do not do well in captivity and easily become malnourished, dehydrated and distressed.
While the hard scales are a perfect defence against most natural predators it also makes them a target for the international trade in animal parts. There is wide spread belief in Asia that the scales can cure a huge gamut of illnesses. In addition to this both baby pangolin and adult meat is considered a delicacy and thought to convey excellent health benefits.
Demand for these creatures has burgeoned in Asia. This has resulted in the decimation of the Asian populations. Coupled with the growing trade between Asia and Africa it is feared that the focus has shifted to the African continent. Poachers and syndicates are poaching at an unprecedented rate.
The pangolin is the most trafficked animal in the world. But how is this even possible, surely we would have heard of it before? The rhino and elephant for example are well documented because they are seen as flagship species. They are iconic and are seen to represent the whole conservation project. Years of research and public awareness campaigns have gone into these species. For this reason we see them a lot in the media.
By comparison, very little is known about the pangolin. There are no indepth distribution or population maps and no one even knows how long they live. The trade for this reclusive animal has therefore been going on in a media blindspot. It was not until 2014 says Lisa Hywood of the Tikki Hywood Trust that pangolins started to receive the media attention that they so desperately need.
In October of 2016 at the CITES convention held in Johannesburg, South Africa, all eight species were upgraded to Appendix 1. This means that international trade in animals is strictly prohibited. In addition to this there are some amazing people working tirelessly to save this exceptional species.
The Tikki Hywood Trust was founded in 1994 and for 22 years has been fighting the cause for lesser known and endangered species. They focus on conservation, education and legislation. Lisa Hywood, who founded the trust in honour of her father, believes that awareness is the key to saving species. By being aware of the animals we are trying to save, the legislation that protects them and the people or organisations to contact you can make a real difference to individual animals and to the species at large.
Recently, world renowned photographer Adrian Steirn shot some incredible images, The Pangolin Men, of pangolins with the people who look after them on a daily basis. Because they do so badly in captivity, these men accompany the pangolins out into the wild to forage for food. They are their constant companions. To see them is to visualise what it will take for the survival of a species.
To help these organisations and people you can visit the following links:
The Tikki Hywood Trust : All about the trust and a place where you can donate, sponsor or even partner this very important player in conservation.
Save Pangolins.org : This site has LOADS of useful information about what to do and who to contact regarding pangolins and pangolin wellfare
Patrick Mavros Animal Jewelry : One of the Tikki Hywood Trusts Partners who have launched and incredible range of pangolin inspired jewelry.