The pangolin is one of the world's strangest-looking wild animals. Found in Africa and Asia, it has a large muscular tail and is covered with armor-like overlapping scales that protect it when it is threatened and it forms an impenetrable armored ball. It lives in both rain forests and savannah grasslands. Little studied, they are natural pest controllers, gobbling up ants and termites.

Pangolins are similar in shape to anteaters and are armored like armadillos. David Attenborough wrote: they “protect themselves with armor” made up of “roughly triangular horney plates that overlap one another like the scale son a fir cone. The pangolins are so specialized that they can now eat nothing but ants and termites for their jaws have lost all their teeth and little more tham a curving tube housing a very long tongue. Several species of them spend their lives in trees and clamber about with the aid of a long grasping tail.

There are seven species of pangolins dispersed but uncommon over southern China, Southeast Asia, Indonesia and Africa. They range in size from two kilogram tree-dwellers to a 30-kilogram. 85-centimeter-long pound African species. The most common species, the Cape pangolin, reaches lengths of 110 centimeters with about half of that being tail. It spends its time entirely on the ground.

The Chinese pangolin of east and south Asia weighs two to seven kilograms. Its body and head is 54 to 80 centimeters long. The tail is 24 to 36 centimeters long. It pale, yellowish scales are up to five centimeters across. The Cape pangolin of eastern and southern Africa weighs 15 to 48 kilograms. Its body and head is 50 to 60 centimeters long. The tail is 40 to 50 centimeters long.

Pangolin meat is a prized delicacy and pangolin scales are greatly sought after for traditional medicines. Their skins are used in making shoes and boots. Between 1980 and 1985, 175,000 pangolin hides were imported into the United States, The practice has since been discontinued.

Pangolin Characteristics

pangolin scales

Pangolins have short legs, a long snout and a thick prehensile tail. The head is small and cone-shaped. The ears are small. Even average size pangolins have a very long tongue that can extend 40 centimeters beyond its mouth, allowing them to reach deep into ant and termite nests. The animal has no teeth and its lower jaw is just slivers of bone. Its powerful stomach muscles “chew” its food.

Pangolins are covered in armor made up of horny plates, which overlap like shingles in a roof. The armor serves as camouflage as well as proving protection. The pangolin’s underside is naked except for a few sparse hairs. On Chinese pangolins and other species the snout, cheeks, throat and inner limbs are also not covered by scales. When it is rolled into a ball none of the soft areas are exposed. On each of forelegs are three long claws (extensions of three of five toes). They are used mainlt to dig out holes in ant and termite nests. The claws on the hind legs are shorter. The pangolin’s claws and prehensile tail make it both a powerful burrower and agile tree climber.

Pangolins are the only mammal in the world with proper scales Jeremy Hance of wrote: “For millions of years the pangolin has depended on its scales to keep it safe. Made of keratin, like human fingernails and rhino horn, the scales become strong and sharp as pangolins age, providing them with tough protection against a forest full of predators. A single pangolin can sport up to around 1,000 individually fitting scale and when they roll into a ball they present a predator with a set of armor that any medieval knight would have envied. [Source: Jeremy Hance,, February 11, 2013 *-*]

Pangolins are around insects a lot and don’t seem to mind having them crawl all over their bodies. They have special muscles in their nose and eyes to close off these sensitive areas. Sometimes they will open up their scales and let ants climb on their skin, apparently to let them consume irritating skin parasites.

Pangolin Uniqueness

Jeremy Hance of wrote: “If you want to picture a pangolin think of a small anteater and then cover it in scaly armor, such as you might imagine on a dragon. Along with these telltale scales, the pangolin has a long snout, with a supple tongue for efficiently gobbling thousands of ants and termites; it sports long claws to dig up termite mounds and walks on its knuckles to keep these claws in prime shape; in addition pangolins have skunk-like anal scent glands to repel predators. Strong as a five-limbed circus acrobat (counting their prehensile tail), pangolins are incredible tree-climbers and, even more surprisingly, excellent swimmers. But perhaps, the pangolins most famous behavior is its ability to roll up into a scaly ball, an excellent defense against non-human predators. In fact, the word pangolin comes from the Malay word 'penggulung,' which means 'roller.' These seemingly hodge-podge traits have made pangolins successful enough to conquer two continents with the eight species split evenly between Asia and Africa. [Source: Jeremy Hance,, February 11, 2013 *-*]

“If the general appearance of pangolins isn't weird enough, their place on the mammal tree of life is just as surprising. Although they look like an anteater in scale-mail, it turns out pangolins are not at all related to anteaters. Instead, recent genetic evidence has found that their closest relatives are actually carnivores, despite the fact that pangolins completely lack one thing all carnivores have: teeth. And, of course, pangolin don't eat meat in the conventional sense, but gobble up insects. Not surprisingly then, pangolins and carnivores are only distantly related: the scaly anteaters split from carnivores an incredible 70 million years ago, meaning that the world's eight pangolins occupy a wholly unique place on Earth. Taxonomists have even given them their own order: Pholidota. *-*

“This make pangolins a prime example of what scientists call convergent evolution. Although wholly unrelated to the Americas' anteaters, the pangolin has evolved a similar body type, including hefty claws, long snout, and long maneuverable tongue. Both animals—pangolins and anteaters—do nothing but eat insects like ants and termites, and it appears that this diet favors certain traits to the point that two completely different mammal families on alien continents could look almost like twins, albeit one hairy and one scaly.” *-*

Pangolin Behavior

Pangolins are solitary, nocturnal animals. They sleep during the day in burrows (sometimes as many as 70 different ones scattered over a large territory). They can walk on their hind legs but most move along on all fours.

When a pangolin is threatened or attacked it rolls up into a ball---with its head sandwiched against its stomach and its muscular tail wrapped around its body---and emits an unpleasant smell like a skunk. Not even a lion or tiger can not pry one open. Pangolins also escape predators by climbing trees, digging into burrows and even forming a ball and rolling down hills---one of the few examples of wheel-like locomotion in the animal kingdom.

Pangolins can swim. Some say pangolins like to take a swim after a meal of ants to clean off parasites on their bodies. Female pangolins usually give birth to one offspring after a 120 day gestation period.

Pangolin Feeding Behavior

A Pangolin tongue is so long that one end of it is attached to animal’s pelvis. Ants and termites are collected with sticky mucus on the tongue and swallowed. Pangolins "chew" using the abrasive walls in their stomach and pebbles they have swallowed. Pangolins, numbats from Australia, aardvarks from Africa and ant eaters of Latin America all have long sticky tongue used for collecting ants. These species, all from different animal groups, developed their tongues independently.

Describing the mechanic of a feeding pangolin, David Attenborough wrote: “A pangolin in search of a meal opens a termite nest with a slash of the claws on its front legs, and pokes its curved snout inside. Angry termites will swarm out to defend their colony but the pangolin is little affected. It presses its horny scales firmly against one another, it keeps the lids of its eyes, which are particularly thick, tightly shut and it closes its nostrils with special muscles. It then protrudes a long black tongue which is liberally anointed with a sticky spittle that pours from an enormous salivary gland housed in its chest. This tongue snakes into the wrecked galleries of the ant’s nest, collects the insects and, flicking in and out, carries them back to its snout. There they are immediately swallowed and mashed up by the horny lining of the muscular stomach. The giant African pangolin can consume as many as 200,000 insects in a single night.

Pangolins have been observed turning over cow patties to get at the termites and breaking open patties and feeding on insects that fell on their stomachs.

Studying Pangolins

Jeremy Hance of wrote: “Despite their numerous oddities,, pangolins have not been widely studied by scientists. Nocturnal and notoriously shy, pangolins are rarely seen let alone meticulously observed by scientists. Scientists readily admit that the private lives of pangolins remain largely that: private. [Source: Jeremy Hance,, February 11, 2013 *-*]

"I was first drawn to pangolins in 2005 when I was about to head to South Africa to volunteer on a game reserve," says Dan Challender who is now working on a PhD focusing on the pangolin trade. "Flicking through a field guide to African mammals, they were about the craziest animals I could find in there, in terms of their appearance, morphology and generally how unusual they were and I hoped to see one in the bush." Challender never did see his pangolin in the wild in South Africa, but has since worked with pangolins throughout Asia and was a driving force in setting up the IUCN Pangolin Specialist Group. *-*

“Challender says when he first started looking into pangolins they "seemed almost forgotten if you will, compared to other arguably more charismatic species." This neglect has meant that researchers need to begin at square one when it comes to pangolin research. "We know very little about their role in the ecosystem," says Chris Shepherd, the Deputy Regional Director in Southeast Asia of TRAFFIC, an organization devoted to fighting illegal wildlife crime. "We do know they play an important role as a predator on ants and termites, but beyond that our knowledge is quite limited. More research is needed to better understand the role these species play, and the impact the mass removal of pangolins for commercial trade is having on the ecosystems around us." *-*

“But young researchers are jumping on the pangolin wagon. While Challender is working to understand the illicit pangolin trade, Ambika Khatiwada, an EDGE Fellow working with Nepal's National Trust for Nature Conservation (NTNC), is kickstarting the first pangolin-focused camera trap project in Nepal. He and his team are setting up automated camera traps near pangolin dens, hoping to catch the shy animals on camera and learn something about their nocturnal wanderings. "The cameras will be placed 24 hours a day at least for 15 days at the same location. The opportunistic locations will be identified by their [pangolins signs] like burrows, footprints and scats," he says. Khatiwada will also be interviewing locals on their knowledge and perception of pangolins. "We hope that this research will be very helpful [in drafting a] pangolin conservation action plan for Nepal," he notes. Such action plans are needed across pangolin ranges in Asia, if the species aren't to wink out one-by-one. *-*

Pangolins: Most Common Victim of the Wildlife Trade

pangolin liquor in Vietname

Jeremy Hance of wrote: “The biggest mammal victim of the wildlife trade is not elephants, rhinos, or tigers, but an animal that receives little notice and even less press: the pangolin. If that name doesn't ring a bell, you're not alone. "Most people don't know what a pangolin is," says, Rhishja Cota-Larson, founder and director of Project Pangolin, along with other initiatives focused on rhinos. [Source: Jeremy Hance,, February 11, 2013 *-*]

"Conservation actions are primarily focused on large mammals (generally the charismatic species) and ignore the pressing issues of small mammals and lower profile species," says Ambika Khatiwada, who is studying the Chinese pangolin in Nepal."The government and other organizations working in the field [...] do not have adequate plans for the conservation of small mammals which has resulted in limited information regarding ecology, threats and other conservation issues related to pangolins." *-*

Pangolins sought in a massively unsustainable, and illegal, trade in their meat and scales. The trade has already pushed two pangolin species (the Chinese and Sunda pangolin) up the IUCN Red List to Endangered. The other two Asian species (the Philippine and the Indian) are considered Near Threatened. "Pangolins are by far the most common species of mammal in international trade, with animals being taken from all across Asia to meet the demand for use in traditional medicines, and for meat, largely in China," says Chris Shepherd, the Deputy Regional Director in Southeast Asia of TRAFFIC, an organization devoted to fighting illegal wildlife crime. *-*

No one knows exactly how big the illegal trade in pangolins has become, but it is undeniably massive and entirely unsustainable. "Since 2000, a minimum of tens of thousands of animals have been traded in each year internationally, from countries ranging from Pakistan to Indonesia in Asia and from Zimbabwe to Guinea in Africa," says Dan Challender. International trade in pangolins has been banned by CITES since 2000; in addition pangolins are listed as a 'protected species' in every Asian home state, except Brunei. Still the trade—wholly condemned by the law both internationally and nationally—has only increased. *-*

In 2010, TRAFFIC released a report that estimated that one criminal syndicate in the Malaysian state of Sabah was responsible for taking 22,000 pangolins over 18 months. Meanwhile in 2011 it was estimated that 40,000-60,000 pangolins were stolen from the wild in Vietnam alone. But total estimates are largely guesses based on seizures of pangolins by law enforcement, which may only represent 10 percent of the total trade. "As the trade is illegal, making any accurate estimates of the size of the trade is impossible," says Shepherd. "It can be said, however, that the trade is great enough that these once widespread and common species have now been all but wiped out completely in many parts of their former range." *-*

The trade is driven primarily by two countries: Vietnam and China. Notably, these two are also the primary drivers of the illegal trade in rhino horn and play a major role in tiger and ivory trade as well. "Despite China being a party to CITES, the bulk of the pangolins taken from the wilds in Southeast Asia have illegally entered into China unchecked," says Shepherd.

Pangolin Threatened by Chinese Medicine Trade

pangolin scale armor from 19th century India

Denis D. Gray of Associated Press wrote: “Once widespread, the shy and defenseless anteater is being vacuumed up for sale largely in China, where many believe it can cure an array of ailments and boost sexual prowess...Ground into powder, pangolin scales are believed to cure rheumatism and skin diseases, reduce swellings, promote lactation for breast-feeding mothers and alleviate other medical problems. Even if it works, conservationists say, proven substitutes are available that wouldn't devastate a species.” [Source: Denis D. Gray, Associated Press, September 14, 2011]

From fields and forests to Chinese cooking pots and medicine vials, the industrial-scale trade is propelled along similar trafficking routes for tigers, turtles, bears, snakes and other mostly endangered species across Asia, all driven by a seemingly insatiable demand for often dubious medical remedies, tonics and aphrodisiacs. "We are watching a species just slip away," says Chris Shepard, who has tracked wildlife trafficking in Asia for two decades. He says a 100-fold increase is needed in efforts to save the pangolin, sometimes described as a walking pine cone.

The meat and scales of the pangolin fetch hundreds of dollars per kilogram in China, where many believe they cure various ailments. The IUCN says rising demand for pangolins and lax laws are wiping out the toothless anteaters from their forest habitat in Southeast Asia.[Source: Teresa Cerojano, Associated Press, April 15, 2013]

In 2013, year a chef surnamed Wang told AFP that his restaurant sold pangolin for 2,000 yuan per half kilo, adding: "We usually braise them, cook it in a stew or make soup, but braising in soy sauce tastes best." Pangolins are protected by the international wildlife trade treaty CITES, to which Beijing is a signatory. But in parts of China they are prized by new mothers hoping to produce milk, and have become the focus of a vast smuggling industry stretching across Southeast Asia - estimated to traffic tens of thousands of the animals each year.

Pangolins scales—unique in the world—are one main reasons for the animal’s demise. "The plight of the pangolin is similar to rhinos in that their most distinguishing physical characteristic is also driving them down a road to extinction," explains Cota-Larson. "Pangolin scales are touted as a treatment for all sorts of things: To promote menstruation, promote lactation, to treat rheumatism and arthritis, to reduce swelling and discharge pus." Cota-Larson adds that the "the medicinal efficacy of pangolin scales is unproven." In fact, it may be that consuming pangolin scales is little more beneficial than eating one's own fingernails, since both are made of keratin. Now there are even claims that pangolin scales are effective against cancer. But this is a common story that appears to shows up whenever illegal traders want to increase demand and hence prices, trusting that the sick and the desperate will be willing to pay anything. [Source: Jeremy Hance,, February 11, 2013 *-*]

Jeremy Hance of wrote: “While demand is greatest for the scales, pangolin meat is also popular and believed to have general health benefits. The meat from pangolin fetuses is considered a delicacy. In East Asia, one can often order pangolin in restaurants; Shepherd says eating pangolin meat in China or Vietnam often "confers status" on the customer, much like wearing fur was once seen as higher-class in the west. "Eating illegal meat is a sign of being above the law, and of being able to afford such a meal," he notes. *-*

Pangolin Trade in Asia

Denis D. Gray of Associated Press wrote: “The last stand of the four Asian species has shrunk to Sumatra and Kalimantan in Indonesia, Palawan in the southern Philippines and parts of Malaysia and India. Conservationists first took serious notice in the 1990s when massive harvesting in China and its borderlands, driven by skyrocketing prices, was sweeping southwards, decimating the slow-breeding animals in Thailand, Myanmar, Cambodia and Laos. "In many places, hunters tell us they don't even look for them any more," Shepherd says. [Source: Denis D. Gray, Associated Press, September 14, 2011]

By the early 2000s, supplies in Thailand were drying up, as evidenced by the development of an unusual barter trade: Thai smugglers would give insurgents in Indonesia's Aceh province up to five AK-47 rifles in exchange for one pangolin, according to the International Crisis Group, which monitors conflicts globally.

The pangolin trade - banned in 2002 by CITES, the international convention on endangered species - resembles a pyramid. At the base are poor rural hunters, including workers on Indonesia's vast palm oil plantations. They use dogs or smoke to flush the pangolins out or shake the solitary, nocturnal animals from trees in often protected forests."Everything is against them. ... They have no teeth. Their only defense is to roll up in a ball that fits perfectly into a bag," Shepherd says. Under stress, pangolins can develop stomach ulcers and die.

Middlemen set up buying stations in rural areas and deliver the animals through secretive networks to the less than dozen kingpins in Asia suspected of handling the international connections. Factories in Sumatra butcher the pangolins, slitting their throats, then stripping off and drying the valuable scales.

The smuggling routes almost all end in China, Shepherd says. Other destinations include Vietnam, the top wildlife consuming nation in Southeast Asia, and South Korea. Pangolins from Indonesia are sent to mainland Southeast Asia, then trucked up the Thai-Malaysian peninsula through Thailand and Laos to southern China. Chinese fishing boats ferry those from the Philippines directly to home ports. Smugglers in the eastern Malaysian state of Sabah ship theirs to Vietnam's seaport of Haiphong or to mainland Malaysia to join the trucking routes. From India, they pass overland through Nepal and Myanmar.

Hunting and Selling Poached Pangolins

range of Chinese pangolin

Jeremy Hance of wrote: “Given that pangolins are nocturnal, small, burrowing, and rarely seen, hunters have had to devise ingenious methods, some used for centuries, to collect the mammals. "Poachers often use dogs to seek out pangolins, especially in areas where pangolin populations have already be reduced," says Shepherd. "Seasoned poachers, however, are very skilled in finding these animals, with some claiming to be able to find them by scent!" Meanwhile, the EDGE program notes on their website that in northern China, pangolins are usually caught after emerging from winter burrowing. When bought at the market "[pangolins] are then killed by crushing the skull, after which the tongue is quickly cut and bled so the warm blood can be drunk as a tonic." [Source: Jeremy Hance,, February 11, 2013 *-*]

“Once caught pangolins are sometimes kept alive until sold. Living conditions can be harsh. Recently it has been reported by Cota-Larson's Project Pangolin that the animals are often force-fed starches in order to rapidly increase their weight. "The procedure must be done carefully and skillfully because if the spout is inserted incorrectly, into the windpipe for example, the starch could kill the pangolin instantly," according to Education for Nature-Vietnam. TRAFFIC has also reported that starches are injected under the skin of pangolins in order to -fatten them up artificially. *-*

“Pangolin trading comes in many different sizes and methods. Khatiwada tells the story of how an illegal trader enlisted a local community into catching pangolins for him. "One trader in Nangkholyang village [arrived pretending to be a] simple businessman to sell women's [cosmetics] and started talking innocently about pangolin scales. He motivated the villagers to collect pangolin scales ensuring incentives in monetary form. Ultimately, he was able to collect about 15-20 kilogram of pangolin scales from the village," says Khatiwada, who heard the story from an anonymous source. "This scenario reflects the serious threat to pangolin for its long-term survival in its natural habitat." Where those scales ended up no one knows. But just last year, Nepalese officials arrested a man passing into China with 50 kilograms of scales. "There may be more cases of illegal trade but we don’t have sufficient information," Khatiwada notes. *-*

“Hard data on the pangolin trade is, like the pangolin itself, elusive. No one really knows how many pangolins are left nor how many exactly are being traded. But Shepherd says we don't need such data, to know that the trade is beginning to take a worrisome toll on some species. "A few years ago seizures of 15-20 tonnes were being made by authorities, but more recently seizures typically involve less than 100 animals. This, and anecdotal information from traders and hunters, strongly suggests that pangolins in Asia are in very serious trouble. Any animal that reproduces as slowly as pangolins do will not be able to withstand such extreme harvest pressures." *-*

Loss of Habitat and Pangolin Seizures

range of Sunda pangolin

Jeremy Hance of wrote: “The illegal wildlife trade isn't the only threat to pangolins, they also face vast deforestation across Southeast Asia, which is imperiling all of the region's forest-dependent species. According to Conservation International, Southeast Asia's forests are the most imperiled in the world: only 5 percent of the region's original forests intact. Meanwhile just 7 percent of the forests of the Philippines, Malaysia, and Indonesia remain untouched. Logging, industrial plantations and agriculture, mining, and booming human populations have all taken their toll. Khatiwada notes that even in Nepal, where forest cover is still generally robust compared to Southeast Asia, the pangolins are losing habitat to a number of activities including booming human populations, roads, forest fires, mining, and cardamom plantations. [Source: Jeremy Hance,, February 11, 2013 *-*]

Denis D. Gray of Associated Press wrote: “As the 20 cardboard boxes bound for China rolled through the X-ray machine at Jakarta's airport, Indonesian customs officials suspected what was inside didn't match what was declared. Instead of fresh fish, a closer look revealed the meat and scales of the most illegally trafficked mammal in Asia: the pangolin.” [Source: Denis D. Gray, Associated Press, September 14, 2011]

Eight tons of meat and scales, worth $269,000, were found in the boxes at Jakarta airport and at a warehouse raided the following day. Four people were arrested. "I am trying hard to win the war," says Brig. Gen. Raffles Brotestes Panjaitan, Indonesia's top wildlife police officer, citing the July seizure. But he lists a host of obstacles: poverty, corruption, an inadequate force and weak international cooperation.

Boat Filled with 10,000 Kilograms of Pangolin Meat Hits Philippine Coral Reef

Reporting from the Philippines, Teresa Cerojano of Associated Press wrote; “A Chinese boat that ran into a coral reef in the southwestern Philippines held evidence of even more environmental destruction inside: more than 10,000 kilograms (22,000 pounds) of meat from a protected species, the pangolin or scaly anteater. The steel-hulled vessel hit an atoll on April 8 at the Tubbataha National Marine Park off Palawan island. Coast guard spokesman Lt. Cmdr. Armand Balilo said Monday that 400 boxes, each containing 25 to 30 kilograms of frozen pangolins, were discovered during a second inspection of the boat. [Source: Teresa Cerojano, Associated Press, April 15, 2013]

The World Wide Fund for Nature Philippines said the Chinese vessel F/N Min Long Yu could have been carrying up to 2,000 of the toothless, insect-eating animals rolled up in the boxes, with their scales already removed. "It is bad enough that the Chinese have illegally entered our seas, navigated without boat papers and crashed recklessly into a national marine park and World Heritage Site," said WWF-Philippines chief executive officer Jose Ma. Lorenzo Tan. "It is simply deplorable that they appear to be posing as fishermen to trade in illegal wildlife."

The boat's 12 Chinese crewmen are being detained on charges of poaching and attempted bribery, said Adelina Villena, the marine park's lawyer. She said more charges are being prepared against them, including damaging the corals and violating the country's wildlife law for being found in possession of the pangolin meat. It is not yet clear which of the four Asian pangolin species the meat comes from. The International Union of Conservation of Nature lists two as endangered: the Sunda, or Malayan, pangolin, and the Chinese pangolin. Two others, including the Philippine pangolin endemic to Palawan, are classified as near threatened.

Alex Marcaida, an officer of the government's Palawan Council for Sustainable Development, Philippine authorities consider the Philippine pangolin threatened because of unabated illicit trade. He said the Chinese crewmen have said the pangolins came from Indonesia, but officials were still verifying the claim. The Philippine military quoted the fishermen as saying they accidentally wandered into Philippine waters from Malaysia. They were being detained in southwestern Puerto Princesa city, where Chinese consular officials visited them. The fishermen face up to 12 years' imprisonment and fines of up to $300,000 for the poaching charge alone. For possession of the pangolin meat, they can be imprisoned up to six years and fined, Villena said.

African Pangolins and the Illegal Wildlife Trade

pangolin defending itself from lions

Jeremy Hance of wrote: “So, what happens if pangolins vanish from Asia? If history offers any perspective, it won't stop there. The wildlife trade for rhinos seamlessly moved into Africa, once the big mammals vanished almost entirely from Asia. The same could happen to pangolins. With four of the world's pangolin species found in Africa, there are already some signs that poaching has begun. [Source: Jeremy Hance,, February 11, 2013 *-*]

"At the moment, African pangolin species are less commonly trafficked to China. However, it would not be surprising if this activity escalates as the Asian pangolin species become more scarce," explains Cota-Larson. "For example, tigers and the Asian rhino species were depleted first. Now, African lion bones are substituted for tiger bones, and African rhino horn is smuggled to consumer markets in Asia." *-*

“African pangolins, comprising four species, are already hunted locally for bushmeat and medicine. One of species, the tree pangolin is currently listed as Near Threatened, largely due to over-hunting locally. If the Asian pangolin trade were to expand fully into Africa its likely these species would be wiped out as quickly as those in Asia. "Overall, more resources and efforts are urgently needed to prevent the African pangolins from reaching the state the four Asian species are in," says Shepherd. "The recent formation of the IUCN SSC Pangolin Specialist Group is a great step in the right direction and will hopefully be able to facilitate and catalyze much needed work, but the fate of pangolins still largely relies on the commitment of governments to seriously crack down on the trade and on the consumers to choose not to buy pangolin parts." *-*

“Project Pangolin in 2012 reported busts of illegal pangolin trading in Kenya, Zimbabwe, and Uganda. But again those only involved pochers that were caught. "All we really know is that pangolins in Asia are being decimated, and that as these populations disappear, traders are shifting their sites towards Africa," says Shepherd. *-*

Efforts to Help Threatened Pangolins

Pangolins are protected in many Asian nations, and an international trade ban has been in effect since 2002, but illicit trade continues. Jeremy Hance of wrote: “As they begin to vanish—in a massive slaughter across East Asia—attention is turning a few degrees toward pangolins. Recently, renowned naturalist and and filmmaker, David Attenborough, selected the pangolin as one of ten species he would save from extinction on his BBC special Attenborough's Ark, noting that the pangolin "is one of the most endearing animals I've met." In 1956, Attenborough saved a pangolin from a stew pot in Bali, later releasing it into the forest. Meanwhile the Zoological Society of London's (ZSL) has added two pangolin species (out of eight) to their EDGE program of the world's most distinct and endangered mammals. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) has kick-started started a conservation and research group devoted solely to these enigmatic animals. [Source: Jeremy Hance,, February 11, 2013 *-*]

Saving pangolins shouldn't be a hard-sell to the general public, because as Cota-Larson says, they have an "irresistible cute factor." In addition, if endangerment means anything, no mammal is found so frequently in the markets, restaurants, and shops that make up East Asia's notorious illegal wildlife trade. The good news is that basic laws are already in place: hunting or selling pangolins is illegal across East Asia, including the two hotspots: China and Vietnam. *-*

"Saving pangolins is going to require a multi-pronged approach," says Shepherd. "Governments need to commit to increasing enforcement efforts to shut the trade down at all links along the chain. Poachers, middlemen, and large-scale traders. Penalties should be severe enough to serve as effective deterrents." Like many other species falling into the illegal wildlife trade trap, Shepherd and other experts suggest a mix of stepping-up law enforcement efforts and working on stemming demand. *-*

"Sentencing to the full extent of the law" is also needed, according to Cota-Larson. Poachers and traders are often let go with more than a slap-on-the-wrist even in countries where laws are strong. This is starting to change for more well-known animals—such as tigers and rhinos—but pangolin dealers are still getting away with it. "Pangolin traders continue to operate with very little fear of serious penalties. Most pangolin traders that are caught have the animals confiscated, but do not receive a penalty that will sever as a deterrent. Many are not convicted at all. If enforcement efforts were sufficient, pangolins would not be in the critical state they are in now," explains Shepherd. *-*

Preservation efforts focus on strengthening often lackluster law enforcement in the region. "Everything is now set up to stop this from happening. The laws are good enough to put traders out of business and into jail," Shepherd says. "It boils down to corruption and enforcement agencies not having the will to act. Wildlife trafficking is still generally not taken seriously." [Source: Denis D. Gray, Associated Press, September 14, 2011]

Weighed against the profits, the penalties for trafficking are low. Not long ago, an entire pangolin could be bought in Indonesia for $5 or less. Panjaitan, the Indonesian official, says just the scales from an average-sized animal now go for about $275. The scales fetch up to $750 a kilogram ($340 a pound) in China.Panjaitan, the director of Investigation and Forest Protection in the Ministry of Forestry, hopes Indonesia will greatly stiffen its jail term this year for major forest encroachment - directly linked to harvesting of pangolins and other wildlife - to a maximum of 20 years.

Although seizures and arrests of low-level smugglers have increased substantially, almost none of the major players have been put behind bars. And as Asian stocks vanish, Africa's three pangolin species have emerged as substitutes - a similar pattern to other traditional Chinese medicines, such as subbing lion bones for those of the now rare tiger.

Still, Steven Galster, executive director of Bangkok-based FREELAND, a group fighting wildlife and human trafficking, points to some progress. Suspecting that a private zoo was a cover for wildlife trafficking, Thai officials charged Daoruang Kongpitakin in July with illegal possession of two leopards. Her brother and sister had been arrested several times for pangolin smuggling.

Wildlife investigators are also tracking a shadowy company in Southeast Asia, which wields influence with both senior Lao and Vietnamese officials and could be among the region's biggest traffickers. ASEAN-WEN, a wildlife enforcement network of the 10 Southeast Asian nations, has also notched successes since its 2005 inception. Such developments across several countries could be a game changer, Galster says. "But will they move fast enough for the species to survive?"

20080318-pangolin Kostich.jpg

Curb Demand for Pangolin Meat and Establishing Pangolin Hot Spots

Jeremy Hance of wrote: “Cracking down on pangolin poachers and dealers would help, but nothing would fix the problem in the long-term like cutting demand. If pangolin scales, meat, and even fetuses weren't in demand, all eight species would be relatively secure. Reducing demand isn't impossible. Demand for whale meat has fallen so far after a global ban and decades of campaigning that Japan practically has to give it away. The global fur trade across the northern Hemisphere has largely run out of steam, as well, as synthetic fabrics and anti-fur campaigning made good. Conservationists hope that same could happen in East Asia one day, but it means fighting a long war--with multiple strategies--not a single battle. [Source: Jeremy Hance,, February 11, 2013 *-*]

"Raising awareness amongst traditional medicine practitioners [...] is absolutely key to reducing the demand, and to ultimately pulling these species back from the verge of extinction. More research into alternatives to pangolin parts should be carried out in conjunction with widespread demand reduction campaigning," says Shepherd, who notes that there are already some alternatives to pangolin scale in the traditional Chinese medicine market. *-*

“In addition Shepherd says it's time for consumers to "face the music." "Awareness amongst the public needs to be greatly raised, especially amongst potential consumer groups. People need to become responsible consumers and refuse to buy pangolin parts and derivatives. Further to that, we need the public to become more actively involved in pangolin conservation," Shepherd says, who adds that concerned citizens can play an active role in saving pangolins. "Call on your government to take pangolin poaching and trade issues seriously. Refuse to spend money at restaurants or traditional medicine outlets that do sell pangolin parts and derivatives. Support pangolin conservation initiatives." *-*

Challender, however, says there is final issue that needs attention, if we are to preserve the pangolin in the short term: establishing pangolin safe spots. "There is a need to identify natural habitats where they exist and provide positive incentives for their conservation [...] This is particularly challenging however, given the high price that pangolins can fetch in illicit trade, but may realistically be the only way pangolins can be conserved," he says. Such safe spots, with community participation, could ensure that pangolins hang-on while the other strategies—decreasing demand and enforcing the law—move forward. Setting up community initiatives, including incentives, to protect imperiled species is playing an increasingly important role in conservation efforts worldwide. If locals value the wildlife around them, it becomes much harder for poachers and traders to make inroads. *-*

Captive and Rescued Pangolins

Jeremy Hance of wrote: “Elephants and tigers will not vanish from the Earth anytime soon. Even if poachers managed to tragically kill the world's remaining wild tigers and elephants, enough of these animals remain in captivity (in fact more tigers are in captivity today than in the wild) that there would be a chance these iconic species would be re-introduced into the wild, just as the Arabian oryx is being re-introduced today after being hunted to extinction in the wild. But pangolins do not have the insurance policy of a robust captive population, putting total extinction that much closer.[Source: Jeremy Hance,, February 11, 2013 *-*]

"Based on my knowledge there are probably less than 100 Asian pangolins in captivity at the moment at a range of institutions," explains Challender. "They are particularly hard to keep in captive environments, let alone breed, mainly because of their specialist diet of ants and termites. Replicating this diet has proved particularly challenging with the animals often suffering from stress as a result." For example, Khatiwada says that the longest surviving pangolin at the Central Zoo of Nepal, Kathmandu could be counted in months not years: nine months to be exact. "Because of 100 percent mortality in the captivity there are no more pangolins at the zoo at present," he notes. Since 2011, the zoo's policy is now to re-release captive pangolins back into wild instead of attempting a captive population. *-*

“In the few cases where keepers are able to keep pangolins alive and happy, breeding in captivity is next to impossible. "Only a few zoos, after investing great amounts of time, effort and financial resources, have ever managed to breed pangolins in captivity. To date, less than 10 pangolins have ever been bred in captivity," explains Shepherd. "These animals are not suited to captivity, and definitely not suitable for commercial captive-breeding." *-*

“This situation means that pangolins have not become "farmed" in Asia like bears and tigers, despite some claims to the contrary in Southeast Asia. "Upon investigation, all of these claims have been proven to be false," says Shepherd, adding, "some species (like chickens) do breed well in captivity at a commercial scale. Pangolins are not one of these." *-*

“Even pangolins rescued from the clutches of a poacher or trader have their own problems. Challender says that rescued pangolins often suffer fatal stomach ulcers due to the stress of their captivity, meaning when authorities make a bust containing live pangolins—which is not unusual—these individuals usually succumb shortly thereafter. *-*

“But the Carnivore and Pangolin Conservation Programme (CPCP) in Vietnam is hoping to change this. The organization is currently spear-heading a project to determine how best to rehabilitate rescued pangolins and even release them back where the belong: the forest. Monitoring the behavior of rescued pangolins, the researchers are looking for natural behavior—such as adept tree-climbing and digging—to find suitable suspects to be released back into Cat Tien National Park. While the inability to breed in captivity, means pangolins have largely been able to avoid the drudgery of being "farmed." But this also means conservationists have no back-up plan if a species is consumed into extinction. In addition, this means that every pangolin scale and hunk of meat entering the illegal trade comes from one place: the wild. *-*

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons

Text Sources: National Geographic, Natural History magazine, Smithsonian magazine, Wikipedia, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, The Guardian, Top Secret Animal Attack Files website, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, The Economist, BBC, and various books and other publications.

Last updated April 2014

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