Pangolins: The Gentle, Ant-eating Oddballs of Africa and Asia

By: Jesslyn Shields  | 

The pangolin resembles an anteater or an armadillo, but is more closely related to a cat or dog. David Brossard/Flickr (CC By-SA 2.0)

In case you were wondering about the dining habits of the most trafficked animal in the world, it's true — they're myrmecophagous, which means they eat only ants and termites. That's not the weirdest thing about them, though. They're maybe the strangest-looking mammals out there — like a fanciful drawing of a herbivorous dinosaur from the 1950s or a giant, earless mouse with a perturbingly crusty skin condition. They also look like a craft project animal made entirely from pinecone scales, and also the lovechild of an artichoke and a roly-poly bug. The animal all the bad guys are after is the pangolin — the gentle, ant-eating weirdo of Africa and Asia.


Native to Asia and Africa

There are eight species of pangolin — Chinese pangolin, Indian pangolin, Sunda pangolin, Philippine pango-lin, giant pangolin, white-bellied pangolin, black-bellied pangolin and Temminck’s ground pangolin — half of them native to Asia and the others to Africa. Though they resemble anteaters and armadillos, they're actually more closely related to cats and dogs, even though they're entirely toothless. These solitary animals spend their nights toodling around, sniffing out ant mounds with their sensitive noses, using their long, sticky tongues to slurp up the insects. A pangolin’s thin, flexible tongue is truly a wonder — often longer than the animal’s entire body, when it’s not being used, they keep it coiled up in a little chamber between their last set of ribs and their pelvis. Some pangolin species also consume stones (called gastroliths) and grit to help break down the prey in their stomachs.

Pangolins are normally pretty slow (although they can put on surprising bursts of speed when necessary) and have poor eyesight, but until they found themselves in the crosshairs of Earth's only superpredator, this didn't really matter because they have a couple of good defense strategies. For instance, if a predator takes an interest in a pangolin, the pangolin might be able to swim out of danger, or the predator could potentially get a facefull of the nasty-smelling substance pangolins use to mark their territories.

However, the best weapon a pangolin has is that it can turn itself into a really frustrating puzzle box. Pangolins are protected by an armor of thick keratin scales so tough that they can withstand a lion attack — they just roll up in a little ball like a hedgehog, and they are capable of withstanding all manner of pummeling. In fact, pangolins are the only scaled mammals, and these keratin plates grow throughout the animal’s life much like hair — they’re constantly being filed down as the pangolin goes about its business, digging burrows and shimmying through tunnels. They’re not entirely covered in scales, however — their bellies are naked except for a smattering of fur.

A pangolin will defensively roll itself into a ball when threatened, making it almost indestructible.
Stephencdickson/Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 4.0)

Even though pangolins are unassuming and docile, several species are major players in their ecosystems. There’s still a lot we don't know about pangolin ecology, but they definitely keep populations of ants and termites under control. The different species prefer different types of habitat — some, like the black- and white-belled pangolins of Africa — are arboreal, so they use their long claws for climbing and use crooks and hollows of trees as hideouts and bedrooms. Other pangolin species spend their entire lives on the ground, digging burrows and foraging for insects. In fact, it’s their scratching and digging that makes them important members of their ecosystems — it aerates the soil (which promotes nutrient cycling). And pangolin burrows can provide shelter to lots of other animals — some are large enough for a human to crawl through, with chambers large enough for an adult human to stand up in!


Most Trafficked Animal in the World

Life can be tough for a pangolin. While it's estimated that pangolins make up around 20 percent of the global wildlife black market — about 2 million animals are poached every year. They're a traditional source of bush meat in many parts of Africa and are considered a delicacy in parts of Southeast Asia (mostly because it's hard to come by and very expensive — the meat is reportedly not very tasty), but it's their scales most people are after.

Their scales are used in traditional Asian and African medicines to cure all kinds of ailments — from heart disease to cancer — even though they’re just made of keratin, the same thing your hair and nails are made of. Although pangolin scales have been used in traditional medicines for a long time, considering they’re just big fingernails, it’s unsurprising that there’s no scientific evidence to support claims that they hold medicinal value. Be that as it may, the Asian market can’t get enough pangolin scales, and illegal trade on an industrial scale is booming, regardless of stringent international laws prohibiting poaching.

Illegal trade has already led to substantial population reductions for the four Asian pangolin species, two of which (the Chinese and Sunda pangolins) are currently listed as Critically Endangered. Due to these population declines, as well as increased trade links between Africa and Asia, populations of African pangolins are increasingly being poached and smuggled to Asia.


Pangolin Conservation

In 2016, all eight pangolin species received more stringent protections at the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES), prohibiting all commercial trade in wild-caught pangolins, worldwide. The law went into effect in January 2017, and in that time large shipments of pangolin products have been seized from throughout the pangolin’s range in Asia and Africa.

Although it’s difficult to estimate whether the more stringent protections are helping wild pangolin populations — partly because they’re so shy it’s difficult to come up with accurate population numbers, and partly because a couple years isn’t really enough time to see a significant population recovery, seeing as females generally only produce one baby per year.

However, there is reason to hope. The new protections have raised awareness of the plight of the poor pangolin — governments in all 31 countries where pangolins can be found now know what they have — even if it’s hard to find them.