Getting to know the Pangolin

If you asked most people what the most traded wild mammal was, they might say the Rhino, perhaps the Elephant, or maybe even the Tiger. Well, in truth, it’s not any of these big, majestic animals – it’s a little known fact that the answer to that question is the Pangolin.

Now, wheat exactly is a Pangolin? Pangolins, members of the order Pholidota, are present in only one extant family today: Manidae. Pangolins are pretty unique and don’t really have any close relatives, but recent genetic work has revealed that they are aligned closest to cats. Out of the family Manidae there are three genera – Manis, Phataginus, and Smutsia, comprising 8 species in total. All of them look relatively similar – medium-sized, elongated animals with long tails and noses, looking rather like anteaters. But the pangolin’s most defining characteristic is its scales – tough, sharp, overlapping, shiny keratin plates that cover its body – a coat of armor that would make any predator, even Lions or Leopards, think twice about attacking it.

Sadly, the Pangolin’s armor coat – which protects it superbly in its natural habitat against predators it has evolved against for millions of years – is attracting interest from people: interest that could well drive it to extinction. The international trade in Pangolin scales, fueled by demand in East and Southeast Asia for traditional medicines, is coming close to wiping out Pangolins in the wild, worldwide, and almost no one knows about it (the fact that the Pangolin is traded 82 times more than Rhino, and 1000 times more than the tiger is particularly telling)! Take several recent examples from airports in Indonesia, Uganda, Hong Kong, Malaysia, and Nigeria consisting of thousands of pounds of scales – to equate this to animals, these are hundreds to thousands of Pangolins! To compound matters further, many Pangolin species simply do not occur at high densities, so poaching at this level is truly clearing forests of these species. Take the example of the Chinese Pangolin, now Critically Endangered: this species, living in Vietnam and China, in other words, states at the heart of the illegal wildlife trade, has disappeared across large parts of its range and is rapidly declining in remaining populations in India and Myanmar, long relatively safe from the devastating poaching epidemic. Even the Sunda Pangolin, formerly more common in remoter forests, is now losing habitat throughout its Southeast Asian range due to the trade – much of which is practically unregulated in the region due to bureaucratic ineptitude and administrative corruption (for example in Vietnam, where police often actively support Pangolin trafficking). The remaining two Asian species, the Philippine and Indian Pangolins, despite facing slightly less poaching pressure, are still endangered and the situation is at great risk of spiraling out of control for both species, especially for the Philippine Pangolin, if the illegal trade cannot be controlled in short order.

For many years, the situation for the four African species – the Tree, Long-tailed, Giant, and Temminck’s Ground Pangolins – remained somewhat under control. Both survived in the relative peace of their habitats – the first three in the dense lowland rainforests of West and Central Africa, and the last in the pristine savannas of East and South Africa. However, recently, alarming evidence indicates that the formerly Asian trade is penetrating the forests and savannas of Africa, where formerly stable Pangolin populations are now under threat. Currently, the 4 species, which formerly only faced variable and seasonal pressure for the bushmeat market, are now hunted relentlessly by trained native poachers seeking to sell the valuable scales for international markets, while consuming the meat locally. The trade has grown to truly unsustainable levels and here, especially in West and Central Africa, African pangolins seem to be suffering the same fate as their Asian relatives.

Recently, I had the opportunity to spend some time observing two rare and unique species of African Pangolins – the Long-tailed and Tree Pangolins – in the Central African Republic, specifically the Dzanga Sangha Reserve in the remote and pristine lowland rain forests of the Southwest. Here, in beautiful forests seemingly free of human presence, the Pangolin trade spreads free of government interference. The impressive, Giant Pangolin, once common in forests throughout the region, has now been pushed far from settlements due to extensive hunting, while the smaller Long-tailed and Tree species are seen in worrying numbers of local markets. Despite this worrying situation however, I find in Africa there are always lights of hope.

Rod Cassidy, owner and operator of the Sangha Lodge, a property catering primarily to ecotourists seeking to explore the verdant tropical rainforests, has taken to trying to save the local Pangolins too. For the last several years, he has instructed the lodge staff the seek out live Pangolins being sold in the bushmeat markets and buy them. At this point, Rod, after weighing and briefly rehabilitating them, releases them back into the relatively well-protected forest close to the lodge, where for the most part, the animals live peaceful lives free of human interference feasting on ants deep in the dense tangles of undergrowth.

It was at Sangha that I got to meet my first Pangolins. Here, I observed two orphans raised to adulthood, something unprecedented for these two species, which have never been reared in captivity before. I had the unique opportunity to observe these remarkable animals, wandering, feeding, and sleeping – something that will undoubtedly become increasingly rare in the future given the severity of their population declines in large parts of their ranges. I even had the chance to observe a wild Tree Pangolin being released back into the forest, an amazing experience, and had the opportunity to learn about the unique struggles that go into rearing these unusual and amazing mammals. In the end, I was glad to hear that both orphans show substantial promise in surviving in the forest on their own.

So next time someone starts talking to you about the Rhino or Elephant poaching epidemic, why not add a little something unique to conversation by mentioning the Pangolin – the world’s most traded mammal that heartbreakingly few know about.

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