22 Oct 2018

The World's Most Illegally Traded Mammal

Head into the Wildlife Gallery at Thinktank and you will find some wonderful examples of animal life. There is a leopard, a peacock and even a Triceratops skull! You will also find on display a very special animal called a Pangolin.

Pangolins (or scaly anteaters) are mammals which live in Africa and Asia. They have scales on their skin making them look a little like a pine cone or a globe artichoke. They are the only mammals which have this adaptation. Pangolin scales are made of keratin, just like our finger nails, and are attached to muscles under the skin. If threatened, the pangolin rolls into a tight ball. This presents its armoured scales to any potential predator, and also protects the soft parts of its body.

Ground pangolin defensive posture Eingerolltes Steppenschuppentier (Manis temminckii), Madikwe Game Reserve, Südafrika by Masteraah wiki commons

Ground pangolin in defensive posture. Photo by Masteraah.

Pangolins are highly specialised insectivores (insect-eater) that consume ants and termites. They hunt at night, using their senses of smell and hearing to locate their prey. Upon discovering an ant hill or a termite nest, a pangolin uses its strong front claws to tear the nest open. It then gathers the insects into its mouth using its long tongue (often longer than its body!) which is coated in sticky saliva. Pangolins can consume up to 20,000 ants a day. That’s about 73 million ants a year! As they don't have teeth, they can’t chew. Instead, they have keratinous spines in their stomach and swallow stones that help them grind up their food in much the same manner as a bird’s gizzard.

Ants get understandably upset if a pangolin attacks their home so they swarm around the mammal trying to bite it. However, pangolins can close their ears and nostrils using strong muscles. This helps protect them from ant attacks.

Female pangolins give birth to a single infant, who is born with open eyes but is unable to walk. The mother will carry her offspring around on her back for up to 6 months. Infants have soft scales that gradually harden. At 6 to 8 weeks they are capable of emitting a foul-smelling liquid from their anal glands. This is a defence mechanism to deter predators.

Adult and juvenile ground pangolin U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Headquarters - Manis temminckii CC BY 2.0 Photo credit to Maria Diekmann of Rare and Endangered Species Trust The United States

Adult and juvenile ground pangolin. Photo by Maria Diekmann of Rare and Endangered Species Trust, USA.

The pangolin's main predators are wild cats, hyenas and humans. In fact human hunting is the most significant threat to the pangolin. The species is consumed by locals as bush meat and is also exported to Asian countries such as China and Vietnam. Pangolin scales are used for cultural purposes and in traditional medicine. All eight species of pangolin are classified as threatened with extinction. The trade in pangolins is illegal, and has a number of both national and international laws protecting them. Despite this, it is still the most trafficked animal on the planet with research estimating that over one million pangolins have been poached from the wild and illegally traded in the past decade.