The Scaly Mammal That May Soon Be Eaten Out of Existence

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September 09, 2014 | 24,226 views

Story at-a-glance

  • The pangolin, or scaly anteater, is one of the most trafficked animals in the world today, and is at risk of being “eating out of existence.”
  • Pangolins are native to Asia and Africa. Despite their scale-covered bodies, they are mammals, not reptiles. The adults range in length from 12 to 39 inches, weigh from 30 to 40 pounds, and can live for 20 years. Baby pangolins are about 6 inches long and 12 ounces at birth, and their scales begin to harden on their second day of life.
  • Pangolins are a high-value item on the black market, especially in China and Vietnam, where their meat is the most expensive item on the menu, and a status symbol. Their scales are also in high demand.
  • At least 1 million pangolins have been taken from the wild in the last decade. The four Asian species are at highest risk, classified on the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s (IUCN) Red List as critically endangered and endangered. The four African species of pangolins are listed as vulnerable.
  • IUCN conservationists have developed an action plan for pangolins, but believe it will take a long time to change public opinion in locations where the animals are traded on the black market.

By Dr. Becker

As one of the most trafficked animals in the world, this very distinctive little creature is falling prey in ever-increasing numbers to illegal hunting and poaching. Conservationists believe, the pangolin, or scaly anteater, is being "eaten out of existence."

According to Jonathan Baillie of the International Union for Conservation of Nature's (IUCN) Species Survival Commission:

"In the 21st century, we really should not be eating species to extinction – there is simply no excuse for allowing this illegal trade to continue."

Despite His Scale-Covered Body, the Pangolin Isn't a Reptile

Pangolins are native to Asia and Africa. Their bodies are covered in scales made of keratin (which is the primary structural material found in human skin). Despite all those scales, the pangolin isn't a reptile, but a mammal.

The pangolin has a small head and no external ears, though his hearing is excellent. He has no teeth, because his stomach is specially designed to grind food. He helps the process along by eating small stones and sand that assist with grinding.

Pangolins stay tucked away in their burrows during daylight hours and do their hunting at night. Their keen sense of smell points them to ant and termite nests, and they use their claws to dig the insects out of their mounds. The pangolin's long tongue (up to 16 inches), which is coated with a sticky substance, captures the ants and termites so they can be swallowed.

When it comes to staying safe from predators, pangolins can play on both the offense and defense. They are able to roll themselves into a tight ball in self-defense, and they can also use their sharp scales to powerfully slice and dice anything inserted between them.

Adult pangolins range in length from 12 to 39 inches depending on the species, and weigh 30 to 40 pounds. They can live up to 20 years. Baby pangolins are about 6 inches long and 12 ounces at birth, and their scales begin to harden by the second day.

Infants rest in the center of the mother's rolled-up body to nurse, which they do until the age of 3 to 4 months. They begin eating insects at about 1 month, which is also when they start accompanying mom while she hunts, often riding on the base of her tail. If the mother senses a threat, the baby slips under her and is protected when she rolls her body into a self-defense posture.

At Least 1 Million Pangolins Have Been Taken from the Wild in the Last Decade

The meat and scales of pangolins are in high demand on the black market, especially in China and Vietnam, despite international trade bans. Conservationists estimate that over a million pangolins have been taken from the wild in just the last 10 years.

A year ago, authorities seized several tons of live pangolins in intentionally mislabeled shipping containers that were en route from Indonesia to Vietnam. And earlier in 2013, 2,000 pangolins were found on a Chinese fishing boat that ran aground off the coast of the Philippines.

Asian Pangolins Are Currently at Highest Risk of Extinction, But at Current Poaching Levels, the 4 African Species Won't Be Far Behind

There are eight known species of pangolin; the four species in Asia are the most severely threatened. According to the latest update of the IUCN Red List, two Asian species are listed as critically endangered (Sunda and Chinese pangolins), and two are endangered (Indian and Philippine pangolins).

The remaining four African species (Black-bellied, White-bellied, Giant Ground, and Temminck's Ground pangolins) are classified as vulnerable, and poachers are already active in Africa after depleting the Asian populations of pangolins.

At the end of July, a group of IUCN-sanctioned pangolin experts developed an action plan outlining the steps that must be taken to save these little animals. Sadly, according to the IUCN, expensive pangolin meat is seen as a status symbol in Vietnam and other locations where the animals are traded on the black market, and conservationists believe it will take a long time to change public opinion.

Part of the action plan put together by the IUCN involves providing alternatives for poachers who make a living hunting pangolins. Due to their value on the black market, finding a pangolin in, say, a remote area of Southeast Asia, is like "winning the lottery."

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