A quick survey of friends and family showed that most people didn’t have a clue what a pangolin is. If they had heard of a pangolin, it was in relation to Covid-19. It is suggested that Covid-19 originated in wet markets where animals, wild and domesticated, are sold for human consumption. Today is World Pangolin Day so I wanted to take the opportunity, as a wildlife communicator, to share some facts about the elusive animals and discuss why it is so important to speak about them.
It may surprise you to know that there are actually eight species of pangolins. The White-bellied, Black-bellied, Giant Ground and Temminck’s Ground pangolins all live in Africa while the Indian, Philippine, Chinese and Sunda pangolins are found in Asia. Most are terrestrial but some live in trees. Pangolins are relatives of the bear, cat and dog despite their nickname – scaly armadillo.
Pangolins are insect-eating mammals, with their diet being predominately made up of termites and ants and they can eat a whopping 70 million insects per year. Imagine how many insects there would be if there were no pangolins! They use their amazing sense of smell to locate insect nests and their sticky tongues, which can be over 40cm long, to scoop up their prey. Pangolins are the only truly scaly mammal and their scales are made out of the same material as our skin, fingernails and hair, keratin. When born, the scales are soft but they quickly harden up and create a brilliant defensive barrier, protecting them from predators.
Despite four pangolin species being placed on the IUCN list of critically endangered animals, and being protected by national and international law, Asia has seen an 80% decline in the pangolin population over the last ten years, leading wildlife traffickers to turn their attention to African pangolins instead. Pangolins are hunted for their meat which is considered to be a delicacy, and for their scales which are used frequently in traditional medicines to treat conditions from asthma to arthritis, even though they have been removed from the list of approved medical ingredients. Scales are also found in the fashion industry being used to make boots, bags and items of clothing. Their defensive strategy of rolling into a tight ball when threatened instead of running makes them an easy target for poachers and their scales, unlike ivory, can be transported discreetly in small quantities and even in pockets and luggage.
It is thought that over a million pangolins have been trafficked over the last decade, with the biggest discovery to date being in April 2019 when two 14 ton shipments of scales were seized in Singapore with a value of around $30million. In light of the pandemic, China has moved to ban the consumption of wild animal meat and other countries are looking at taking similar decisions, but the demand for these animals is still high and pangolins are still being poached and trafficked. What is needed now is pressure from the global community to tighten law enforcement. Traffickers have access to the whole world through social media and online advertisement, and there needs to be a crack down on these criminals using the internet to broaden their opportunities to exploit these beautiful animals. In March 2020, it was reported that 3.3 million listings had been blocked or removed but there is still work to be done.
So what can we do to help? The first step is to raise awareness of the species. As mentioned previously, a lot of people haven’t even heard of a pangolin. By raising awareness of the dangers faced by all pangolin species, we can contribute to the global push to end the illegal wildlife trafficking industry which affects so many animals every year. Social media, despite it’s flaws, has a lot of potential – share information you find about trafficked species, tell your friends what you have learnt about wildlife trafficking, sign petitions lobbying governments to tighten laws on the consumption and trade of wild animals, donate to sanctuaries and organisation’s fighting trafficking and by doing so we can collectively work to end suffering.
We only have one Planet Earth. There is no planet B. The trafficking of all species, not just pangolins, plays a part in the spread of zoonotic diseases. The more habitat we destroy and the more we exploit non-human inhabitants of this beautiful planet, the more we risk further outbreaks of new diseases. If we don’t stop and change our actions then I’m sure we can expect more global emergencies. We need to work together now before it is too late. I speak to countless people who simply do not care about other animals and the actions that humans are taking to destroy the planet, they ignorantly think that it does not directly affect them. But of course it does and we can and must change the minds of these people and make them see the damage we are all contributing to. We do not own this planet and we must stop acting like we do.
For more information and to find out how we can help in the fight against pangolin trafficking please visit the following sources:
The fight to stop pangolin extinction | Stories | WWF (worldwildlife.org)
Conservation – Save Pangolins
African Pangolin Working Group – Conservation on a different scale
BBC – Earth – Pangolins are the world’s most trafficked mammal
International trade and trafficking in pangolins, 1900–2019 – ScienceDirect
Please Help Pangolins | Fauna & Flora International (fauna-flora.org)