Pangolin: The Endangered Species With a Misleading Nickname

By: Sascha Bos  | 
The word "pangolin" comes from the Malay word for rolling over. CarlFourie / Getty Images

This "scaly anteater" is one of the most trafficked mammals in the world. Learn more about the pangolin, from its diet to illegal trade and what's being done to protect pangolin species today.


What Is a Pangolin?

Pangolins are eight different species of mammals in the Manidae family with overlapping scales that curl into a ball as a defense mechanism.

The word "pangolin" comes from the Malay word for rolling over. Although they're known as scaly anteaters, pangolins are not closely related to anteaters (although they both dine on insect nests).


Pangolins are 1 to 3 feet (0.3 to 4 meters) long and have tails that are typically 10 to 28 inches (25.4 to 71.1 cm). They weigh anywhere from 10 to 60 pounds (4.5 to 27.2 kg).

They have pointed faces and are almost entirely covered in scales. Pangolin scales play an important role in the animal's survival. A startled pangolin will roll up into a tight ball, using its sharp scales to protect itself from predators.

8 Species of Pangolin

  • Black-bellied pangolin (Phataginus tetradactyla)
  • Chinese pangolin (Manis pentadactyla)
  • Giant ground pangolin (Smutsia gigantea)
  • Indian Pangolin (Manis crassicaudata)
  • Philippine pangolin (Manis culionensis)
  • Sundra pangolin (Manis javanica)
  • Temminck's ground pangolin or Cape pangolin (Smutsia temminckii)
  • White-bellied pangolin (Phataginus tricuspis)

Pangolin Diet

An adult pangolin will eat termites, ants and other insects. They locate termite and ant nests by smell, and then rip open the nests with their sharp claws. Their sticky tongues extend up to 10 inches (25.4 cm) long to help them get every last morsel.


Where Do Pangolins Live?

The eight species of pangolin are spread throughout Asia and Africa, with four Asian species and four African species.

The Asian pangolins include the Sundra pangolins (found throughout Southeast Asia), Chinese pangolins (found in the Himalayan foothills, China, and parts of Southeast Asia), the Philippine pangolins (found only in the Philippines) and Indian pangolins (found in Bangladesh, India, Nepal, Pakistan and Sri Lanka).


There are four species of African pangolins: Temminck's pangolins, giant ground pangolins, white-bellied pangolins and black-bellied pangolins.

Some species of pangolin live in trees (the black-bellied pangolin and Chinese pangolin), while others stay on the ground (giant ground pangolin).


Pangolin Conservation Status

Pangolins are known as some of the most trafficked mammals in the world. All eight pangolin species are on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species.

Three species are critically endangered (the Chinese pangolin, Philippine pangolin and Sunda pangolin), three are endangered (the Indian pangolin, white-bellied pangolin and giant ground pangolin) and two are vulnerable (the black-bellied pangolin and Temminck's pangolin).


Dan Challender, Chair of the IUCN SSC Pangolin Specialist Group, wrote in an IUCN press release:

"Their imperiled status is due to overexploitation from both poaching for consumption of the animals and their body parts (e.g., scales) locally and from trafficking of pangolins and their scales internationally, mainly to satisfy the unyielding demand of China and Vietnam’s luxury meat and traditional medicine markets. Pangolin meat is eaten as a luxury dish in high-end urban restaurants and pangolin scales are used to treat a range of ailments from psoriasis to cancer."

According to Challender, in the last decade, pangolin trafficking has moved beyond Asia, with African pangolins being poached and sent to Asia. Now, all eight species are involved in illegal wildlife trade.

In 2016, the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora voted to ban the international trade of all pangolins and their parts.

Despite national and international laws protecting pangolins, illegal poaching still occurs due to the high demand for pangolin products, including the pangolin scales used in Traditional Chinese medicine (TCM).