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Pangolins in a Pickle

Updated: Sep 14, 2023

The charismatic pangolin is one of the most threatened mammals in the world, and one you’ve likely never heard of. Alex Powell reports on their plight and what hope there is for their recovery.

“Alex, come have a look at this - there’s these lovely little animals on the TV.” The first time I had heard of the ‘pangolin’ was around two years ago through my grandmother, when she saw an advert for their conservation on the television. I went to have a look and quickly discovered their charm. The pangolin is a shy, gentle mammal that lives in the tropical and subtropical forests of Africa and Asia. Although neither of us had ever heard of a pangolin until that moment, we were intrigued by them and wanted to find out more about this elusive creature. After a Google search, we discovered just how incredible and unique pangolins truly are.

As it turns out, we were not alone in being completely unaware of their existence - just 8% of people actually know what a pangolin is!

Their name originates from the Malay word penggulung, meaning roller: when threatened, they curl into a ball and use their tough scales as a defence against predators. Pangolins are the only mammal capable of growing and re-growing their scales, also giving the species its more informal name of the ‘scaly anteater’. They share similarities with anteaters in terms of their diet, but they differ in the relative size of their tongues - the length of some pangolin tongues can exceed the length of the entire rest of their body, enabling them to catch prey at truly incredible distances!

A friendly pangolin photographed in Namibia. Image Credit: Alex Strachan on Pixabay.

Sadly, there are also some far less fun facts about this species that are important to note.

The pangolin is the most trafficked non-human mammal in the world, with over 850,000 individuals traded internationally in the last ten years alone. Humans pose the single largest threat to the species; although their scales have never been shown to possess any health benefits, they are widely used in traditional Chinese medicine. Pangolins are also hunted for their meat, with many viewing it as a delicacy.

According to WWF, a pangolin is poached around every 3 minutes due to staggering international demand. As their habitats continue to be destroyed by deforestation, many pangolins are becoming increasingly exposed and accessible to poachers. It has been estimated that the pangolin population in China may have declined by as much as 80% between 2008-2020. The eight individual species of pangolin are all categorised between Vulnerable and Critically Endangered on the IUCN’s Red List.

3 tons of confiscated pangolin scales were burnt by the Government of Cameroon in 2017, signifying the intolerance of the poaching and trafficking of pangolins in Cameroon. Image Credit: Linh Nguyen Ngoc Bao on Wikimedia Commons.

However, it is not all bad news for the pangolin. By making a concerted effort to implement protection for the species, Taiwan now boasts the highest global population density of pangolins. An estimated 10,000-15,000 Chinese pangolins now live in the wild in Taiwan. But how exactly have they achieved this? Many attribute the success of the species to the landmark Wildlife Conservation Act passed in 1989; those hunting endangered animals now face substantial fines and up to 5 years in prison. Unfortunately, legal measures are typically not enough to stop poachers, often just driving trade underground.

Crucially, protective laws in Taiwan have been supplemented by tremendous efforts to change public attitudes towards vulnerable animals such as the pangolin. Those involved in traditional Chinese medicine production have been encouraged to use alternative ingredients to those sourced from endangered wildlife.

Additionally, Taiwanese citizens have begun to value nature much more since the environmentalist movement in the late 1980s, and economic development has meant many no longer rely on bushmeat for sustenance. However, these conservation success stories are few and far between, with Taiwan one of just two regions in which pangolin populations are known to be recovering. Their numbers sadly continue to decline across the majority of Africa and Asia.

Close-up image of pangolin scales, a feature for which they are often hunted. Image Credit: Kenneth Cameron on Flickr.

Conservation organisations such as the Born Free Foundation and WWF do amazing work globally, both by lobbying other countries to implement similar actions to those seen in Taiwan, and by working to protect wild pangolins and their habitats. Many injured individuals are even treated and nursed back to health by these charities in an effort to aid the species’ recovery. After reading about their incredible efforts to protect pangolins all over the world, my gran and I made the decision to sponsor the pangolin family safeguarded by Born Free.

Supporting organisations like Born Free allows them to protect more endangered wildlife, campaign for further increases in legal measures, and to care for more pangolins under threat. Although the species has not entirely recovered in Taiwan, this news acts as a beacon of hope for the pangolin, proving that populations can begin to increase again when appropriate action is taken. Each time somebody is curious enough to find out just how unique and wonderful the pangolin truly is, we are one step closer to a world in which once again they can thrive.

If you would like to find out more about the work done by WWF and the Born Free Foundation to protect pangolins and other endangered species, please follow the links below:

About the author: Alex Powell is an Ecology and Conservation Biology student at the University of Sheffield, with particular interests in zoology, animal behaviour and climate change. He hopes to pursue a career in ecological research and volunteers with the RSPB in his spare time. You can find out more on his LinkedIn page.

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