Meet the Pangolin

Tree Pangolin
Tree Pangolin, image © Valerius Tygart under Creative Commons license

By Matthew Hardcastle
BU News Service

Meet the pangolin. Sometimes called scaly anteaters, they are actually quite distinct from other mammals. The eight living species in the genus Manis actually comprise their own order, Pholidota. Four species live in tropical Asia and four are distributed across sub-Saharan Africa.

Pangolins dine exclusively on ants and termites, so they do share some features with more familiar anteaters. They have no teeth and a long sticky tongue; the longest mammalian tongue relative to body size, in fact, with muscle attachments on the pelvis. They have large front claws for digging into termite mounds; to protect these brittle claws some species walk on their knuckles or even travel bipedally, using their long tails as a counterweight.

Pangolins also have many unique features, most notably the greenish brown scales covering much of their body, apart from their soft underbelly. Like some armadillos, pangolins roll into a ball as a defense mechanism. Looking like a cross between a basketball and an artichoke, their hard, serrated scales act as effective armor against large predators.

While effective against lions, the pangolin defense mechanism makes them easy targets for poachers, who simply pick them up and toss them in a sack. Pangolin meat is regarded as a delicacy in China and Vietnam, with pangolin fetuses considered to be an especially auspicious display of wealth. The pangolin’s scale are also made of keratin, the same biologically inert but mythically curative substance as rhino horns.

Lax enforcement of the few protections pangolins do have and black market demand makes their scales and meat perhaps the most heavily trafficked mammal contraband in the world. The impacts are hard to estimate, with the thousands of specimens seized each year comprising just a fraction of the total trade. Conservationists also know little about the wild populations or ecology of this vastly understudied mammal, which fairs poorly in captivity.

Despite the lack of data, the sheer volume of illegal consumption likely justifies IUCN red listing for all eight species, of which only the Chinese and Sunda species have so far received. But protections will mean nothing if the vast maw of the Asian black market for animal parts isn’t shut up through education and harsher international sanctions.

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