On Its Way Out - The Pangolin

The pangolin is another of those relatively unknown animal species that is being wiped off the face of the earth by man's greed and his misguided notions of the healing powers of its body parts. Once widespread, this shy and defenceless creature is at great risk of extinction.

The pangolin is also known as the scaly anteater and belongs to the order Pholidota. Pholidota only contains one family (Manidae). The genus is Manis and there are eight species of the pangolin - four in Asia and four in Africa. It is the only mammal to have large keratinous scales. 'Pangolin' derives from the Malay word 'pengguling' meaning 'something that rolls up'.

African Pangolins
All four African species are found south of the Sahara. The most widespread is the ground pangolin, which lives, not surprisingly, on the ground! The tree pangolin is an arboreal species and has a semi-prehensile tail, allowing it to hang from branches while stripping away bark and exposing insect nests inside. The others are the giant and the long-tailed.

Indian Thick-tailed PangolinCredit: Wikimedia

Asian Pangolins
The four Asian species are the Indian (or thick-tailed),
Chinese or Formosan, Malayan or Sunda and the Palawan pangolin. Indian pangolins in Sri Lanka live in the rainforest canopy which supports fruit and flowers and therefore more ants than can be found on the dark ground level. The Asian types differ from the African types by the presence of thick bristles between the scales. Almost all species are opportunistic feeders, foraging both on the ground and in the trees.

The African pangolin is found in savannahs and woodlands, preferably where the soil is sandy and within reach of water.

In Asia, a variety of habitats are utilised. Tropical and flooded forests, thick brush, cleared areas and savannah grasslands are all home to the pangolin providing there are large numbers of ants and termites.

Physical Characteristics
There is considerable difference in the size of the different species. Length varies from 12 to 39 inches and weight from 3.5 pounds to a maximum of about 73 pound. The overlapping protective scales make up about 20% of the weight of the animal. Generally males are 10 to 50% heavier than females while male Indian pangolins may be up to 90% heavier.

They may be almost any shade of brown from light to yellowish, olive or dark brown. Overlapping scales grow throughout the life of the animal and have the appearance of artichoke leaves. The edges of the scales are constantly filed down as the animals dig and tunnel. The ventral surfaces are covered with sparse fur.

Although the pangolin is covered in large, hardened, plate-like scales, it is not a reptile but a mammal. The scales are razor-sharp and are made of keratin which is the same protein which makes up human fingernails and hair. The head of the pangolin is small and conical in shape and the tail long and broad. Pangolins have no teeth. Despite having no external ears, their hearing is good. Their sense of smell is also well-developed but they have poor eyesight.

The legs are short and each paw has five toes. The forefeet have three long curved claws which are so long that the animal shuffles on all fours, balancing on the outer edges of the forefeet and tucking the claws underneath. They can run surprisingly fast and will stand on their hind legs to sniff the air. They are also good swimmers. In captivity, pangolins have lived to twenty years of age. Life span in the wild is unknown.

The long tailed pangolin is active during the day but the other species are nocturnal and highly secretive, staying in burrows during daylight hours, curled in a ball and sleeping.

Pangolin with lionsCredit: Wikimedia

When threatened, pangolins curl in to a tight ball which is very difficult to unroll. The armour-plated scales are attached to powerful muscles which work in a cutting action to inflict serious wounds should anything be inserted between the scales. They will puff and hiss and lash their tails from side to side. They also emit strong, foul-smelling secretions from glands near the anus much as the skunk does. Their territories are scent-marked with these secretions and with urine scattered faeces.

They are solitary animals as a rule although females are sometimes found in their burrows with males. Burrows up to 11 feet deep are constructed for sleeping and nesting. Circular chambers are sometimes large enough for a human to stand in. The strong front legs and claws are used for digging and the hind legs and tail for balance and support. The sides and roofs are excavated by pushing up and out with the tough scaled body. Accumulated soil is worked back towards the entrance then vigorously kicked out.

Some species sleep in the forks and hollows of trees and logs.

By using their sense of smell, the pangolin locates termite and ant nests. They use their claws to dig open the mounds, inserting extremely elongated tongues into the mound. The tongue is coated with a gummy mucous from large salivary glands. When at rest, the tongue (which reaches 16 inches long in large specimens) pulls back into a sheath which retracts into the chest cavity.

Pangolins also supplement their diet with invertebrates such as flies, earthworms and crickets. Because of their specialised dietary needs, pangolins are difficult to feed in captivity, often rejecting anything unfamiliar. The gizzard-like stomach grinds the food. The pangolin consumes a certain amount of small stones and sands to aid the digestive process. Their insatiable appetite for insects makes them an important part of an ecosystem as they act as a natural pest control method. Special muscles seal the nostrils and ears, preventing injury from ant bites while muscles in the mouth prevent prey from escaping.

The part of the brain that solves problems is highly developed in the pangolin and in captivity they are remarkable for their escapism techniques.

Pangolin CoatCredit: Wikimedia


Pangolin coat

Gestation varies from 65 to 139 days depending on the species. A single offspring is usual although some Asian animals give birth to two or three young. At birth, the babies are about 6 inches long and 12 ounces in weight. The scales are soft and pale but start to harden on the second day. The baby is folded in the mother's lap or rolled-up body. It begins to eat termites at a month old but continues to nurse for 3 to 4 months. At about a month old it accompanies the mother and may ride on the base of her tail. If in danger, the baby moves under the mother who rolls her body round it. The young are sexually mature at two years of age.

The pangolin has a rich heritage in folklore and legend. Burning the scales supposedly keeps wild animals at bay and pangolin is a popular bush meat in Africa.

The Asian species are particularly at risk where the pangolin is in great demand in China for use in traditional medicines. It is revered as an aphrodisiac and credited with grandiose healing powers. Illegal trafficking in pangolin meat and scales is rife.

In the early 2000s, as supplies in Thailand became more and more limited, Thai smugglers would give insurgents in Aceh province, Indonesia, up to five AK-47 rifles in exchange for one pangolin. The animals are butchered in factories in Sumatra. The scales are stripped off and dried then smuggled out to China, Vietnam and South Korea. Just this month (October 2011), eight tonnes of pangolin meat and scales worth $260,000 were found in cardboard boxes at the airport and a warehouse in Jakarta.

Despite the ban in 2002 by CITES (Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species) on the pangolin trade, poverty, corruption, an inadequate enforcement system and weak international cooperation is making it almost impossible to stop the trafficking of pangolin and other wildlife parts.