The pangolin is a timid little creature going about its nocturnal ways, slurping up ants and termites with a tongue longer than its body. It has no teeth. Its defense when threatened is to roll up into a ball shielded by its scales — an armor plating that is the cause of its woes.
Ranging in size from 3 to 73 pounds, there are eight distinct species of pangolin — their name originates in the Malay word ‘penggulung’ meaning the one that rolls up. In 2014, the International Union for Conservation of Nature redlisted all pangolins, classifying the four Asian species ‘endangered’ — of these, the Chinese and the Malay (Sunda) are critically so. Similarly threatened by decreasing numbers, the four African species were listed ‘vulnerable’.
The principal reason for their plight is their defense mechanism, the scales, which in some cultures are claimed to hold magical properties. Thus in parts of Africa, a woman interested in a particular man is believed to be able to control him by burying a pangolin scale outside his front door. In China and East Asia, the scales are considered to have medicinal benefits.
The meat is also considered a delicacy. They have long been hunted in Central Africa for bushmeat but the numbers lost are not easy to calculate. In 2018, an estimate of 400,000 to 2.7 million killed for food was reported by researchers using three different methods — hence the wide range. The lead author of the study, Daniel Ingram of University College London, expressed greater confidence in the lower number.
The third Saturday in February, which fell on the 16th this year, is World Pangolin Day. Unfortunately, there was little cause for celebration as the following customs seizures from just the previous two months manifest.
On December 6, 2018 Malaysian customs officials had to incinerate 2.8 tons of pangolin scales of Cameroon and Ghanaian origin. In January, Ugandan authorities confiscated a large store of scales along with ivory of Congolese origin. Also in January on the 16th, 8.3 tons of pangolin scales were seized in Hong Kong from Nigerian cargo bound for Vietnam. A raid on a warehouse in Koto Kinabalu, Malaysia, by customs officers on February 7 yielded 30 tons of frozen pangolins and pangolin parts.
Adding to all of this is the largest haul globally in five years as reported by Singapore authorities on April 5th. They discovered 12.9 tonnes of pangolin scales from an estimated 17,000 animals along with 390 lb of ivory in a shipping container destined for Vietnam. Sadly, these efforts by authorities also attest to the ineffectiveness of the ban on all international trade in pangolins two years ago (2017) by the Convention in International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES).
Making matters worse, the pangolins are mammals and (unlike rabbits!) happen to be slow breeding. The gestation period is 5 months and mothers seldom give birth to more than one pangopup a year. Pink and soft, the newborn pups are just 6 inches long, weighing about 12 ounces. Their scales begin to harden the next day. The baby is suckled for three months but insects supplement its diet after about a month. It then takes two years to reach sexual maturity, all of which accounts for the slow replacement rate.
Their defense to roll up into a ball helps them very little for the poachers simply bag them. Moreover, biologists know little about their physiology and behavior, knowledge that might help to protect them. Being nocturnal and very shy, they are difficult to track in the wild. And adding to the challenges of research, they unhappily stress easily and usually die in captivity.
Poaching is almost impossible to stop unless the profit incentive stemming from the dubious medicinal benefits of the scales is removed — the April 5th seizure was worth $38 million. The scales are the principal source of demand and as they are made merely of keratin, the same as in human fingernails and hair, it then becomes a matter of education to curb demand.
For the gastronomic aspects, one example to follow could be shark fin soup. It is a delicacy in China and so was expected at official banquets, until banned in July 2012 following pressure from environmental groups. Sales have since plummeted.
Do pangolins have a chance? Let’s hope so, or the little fellows will go the way of the African Northern White rhinoceros before we even get to know them. Sudan the last white rhino male died on March 19, 2018. As is often the case, it will take a sustained effort by environmental groups to persuade the Chinese, Vietnamese and other East Asian governments to act.