A pangolin curled up

Pangolins: conservation on all scales

A finalist for the title: World’s Weirdest Animal

It has four legs, but sometimes it walks only on two. It’s covered in so many scales that it seems more Dragon than Mammal; making it officially lion-proof even though it has very few natural predators. And since all of its kind are ant and termite specialists they have arguably the longest tongue-to-body length ratios in the world. In short; you have to see it to believe it.

A pangolin sitting

Currently, there are eight species of pangolin spread equally across the African and Asian continents, ranging in size from 1.5kg to a whopping 40kg (Africa holds this title). To top it off, recent studies show these unique mammals have been roaming the planet for close to 16 million years! Thankfully they have become smaller by the time they arrived in the Holocene.

Holocene: The Holocene is the name for the most recent interval of Earth's history and includes the present day.

- Science Direct

From the Chinese pangolin to the Indian pangolin, and all the way down through Africa, pangolins are solitary mammals and are not dangerous or aggressive. Looks can be deceiving as these hard-scaled ‘ant-eaters’ are actually quite placid and go about their business without much fuss and usually in complete silence. Pangolins are also one of the few animals that have no vocal cords, so the only sounds they produce are from huffing and puffing their way through a tasty meal.

They play an important role in ecosystems as insectivores by consuming hundreds of ants and termites during just one feeding, keeping those insect numbers ‘in check’ within the environment. Too many ants or termites could be disastrous for any landscape, and pangolins do an excellent job at managing them.

This is an easy diet when your food is on the ground, but in tropical areas, many ant species live in the tree canopy because the forest floor is simply too wet, even for an ant. Nature always finds her balance, and in this case, she created the more agile tree-climbing pangolins who have monkey-like tails that makes them excellent tree climbers; they have even been found sleeping inside an ant nest 60 metres up in the forest canopy!

In response to a diet that consists only of ants and termites, the pangolin has a very slow reproductive rate (an average of 1 pup every 1.5 years across all species) which poetically means that pangolins will never be in such abundance that they could destroy their food source. How amazing is nature!

A pangolin walking towards the camera

Pangolin poaching: from the Medieval to the new millennium

Pangolins' historic significance in African and particularly Asian cultures over the centuries cannot be understated. Sometimes this has been to their benefit, sometimes to their detriment. Still, this species appears to have hovered in and out of the shadows of cultural and conservation history until recently when it entered the new millennium and is not coping well against the pace of the new consumer-driven world. 

Unfortunately, the combined impacts of habitat loss, a low reproductive rate, a booming illegal wildlife trade, and even electric fences have had a major impact on pangolin populations across the planet. The real damage has come from the attention of global illegal wildlife marketers who traffic pangolin scales as an easy source of Asian cultural medicine. The Asian pangolin populations have been impacted the most, and now demand for their scales is being substituted for by the four African species. The result is one of the biggest ecological tragedies modern conservation has ever seen.

An unfortunate rise to superstardom

It is extremely difficult to protect a species when so few people know that it even exists, and for many years pangolin organisations campaigned for the international public to be aware of the role the species plays and the growing pressures on populations worldwide. The main problem is that they are too easy to catch! When threatened, all pangolin species will curl into a ball and let their scales naturally protect them. They can then stay in this defensive position for hours until they feel safe enough to uncurl and go about their business. Sadly this is no defence against a poacher who can simply walk right up to the animal, pick them up and place them in a bag.

Karl Johan Nils Friberg: Pangolin at Phinda Private Game Reserve

Unfortunately, the illegal trade in pangolins skyrocketed before environmentalists could do anything, and now pangolins have become famous because they were already listed as a vulnerable species before most people knew they existed. The story of the pangolin is simply an extraordinary example of how we as a human race must pay attention to what we are doing to our environment, and as of 2016 all pangolin species worldwide are protected and categorised by the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species as either vulnerable, endangered or critically endangered.

The pangolin crisis, as it is now referred to, varies as you scan your finger across the map of Africa. So let us first distinguish the role that pangolins play in cultures across the continent.

The African perspective

Africa is home to 50% of the world's pangolin species. The white-bellied and black-bellied pangolin are agile tree climbers found only in the jungles of Central and West Africa, but the other two would look more like a convoy of tanks if they walked past their tree-climbing cousins. The Temminck’s ground pangolin and the Giant ground pangolin are the largest of the species and are too big to climb trees. The biggest celebrity of all the African pangolins is the Temminck’s pangolin which inhabits Southern and East Africa and has become a symbol for pangolin conservation worldwide. It’s also the only pangolin that permanently walks on two legs.

Although many African cultures eat pangolin for food, this impact on wild populations is ‘sustainable-ish’ because mostly it's a case of local harvesting by local hunters for local villages. Modern-day pressures such as the demand for bushmeat in cities and loss of habitat from illegal deforestation have now changed this balance, and with the illegal trade taking more than its ‘fair share’, pangolin populations are just unable to recover quickly enough.

In countries such as South Africa, Malawi, and Tanzania, people mainly use pangolin scales for traditional medicine, and the number of pangolins hunted for this purpose is very low. The scales are often handed down through the generations to be used as lucky charms, which means there is not much demand for them because they last for generations (literally). These cultures also don’t eat pangolin meat, and if they do so it’s usually for ceremonial purposes because pangolins are respected as totem animals in some areas. 

On the other end of the scale (pun intended), countries such as Cameroon and Ghana in Central and West Africa eat pangolin meat regularly and also use the scales for traditional medicine. In such places, the meat is prized for its flavour and is eaten in both villages and cities. Many people in these areas say that eating wild meat such as pangolin is better than eating beef or pork because wild meat tastes better.

Totem: A totem is a spirit animal that serves as an emblem representing a group of people, such as a family, clan, lineage, or tribe. 

- Britannica

So to recap...

Some African cultures eat pangolin regularly, and some only use the scales for traditional medicine. Although these are still conservation concerns, the amount that is eaten or used is much less than for the Asian markets. Asian cultures, just like some African cultures, generally eat pangolin meat as a delicacy and use the scales for a variety of traditional medicines similar to that for rhino horn. But when you consider that the African continent is currently estimated at 1.4 billion people and Asia at 4.7 billion, it is clear to see that the illegal wildlife trade from Africa to Asia will decimate wild populations if something is not done to curb the trade. 

In 2019, the World Bank declared that 85% of Africans live on less than $5 a day. With current Asian pangolin populations falling to an all-time low, and thus driving the demand from Africa, there are now foreign traffickers in all four corners of the African pangolin range who pay locals to hunt and gather pangolins to supply the Asian markets. In the eyes of the law, this turns local African hunters into poachers, because the benefit of making some extra cash far outweighs the risk of being caught. But where there is smoke there is fire, and the wildlife trade has now attracted the attention of global organised crime syndicates who are finding new ways to ship illegal wildlife products overseas. This also occurs in European countries such as Belgium, where African nationals seek food items from their home countries. Authorities and governments have pooled their resources and knowledge together to try and combat the current crisis, but many battles remain to be won.

A close up of pangolin scales
A close up a pangolins scales.

Nerdy millennials to the rescue

In the age of technology, it is only fitting that new advanced systems are being implemented in the fight to preserve the world’s wildlife. One such technology is the rise of artificial intelligence (AI) and its super-human capacity to vastly improve anti-poaching efforts for pangolins across the globe. Global conservation efforts such as Operation Pangolin have incorporated AI into their extensive monitoring programs in both Africa and Asia, while the world of computer game processing has partnered with major academic institutions to build a deep-learning platform that can identify and respond to conservation threats in milliseconds!

Artificial intelligence models are also being deployed on several online platforms to identify animal parts such as scales and aid in the arrest and prosecution of illegal traffickers. These new technologies are proving helpful in the fight, but the combination of issues threatening the survival of the species as a whole will require more than just machine learning and Instagrammers.

A pangolin walking away

What can you do to help? Volunteer!

Losing just one species of pangolin could trigger a trophic cascade that we currently do not fully understand. Not buying any pangolin products is a good start, but the species, in general, is desperate for more ecological research. With all four African species being mostly nocturnal, spread out over roughly 8 million square miles, and inhabiting some of the most remote environments from the Congo basin to the Kalahari desert, it’s not surprising that we still know very little about them.

Only ‘calculated guesstimates’ exist on how long they live and what their entire lifecycles entail. This means that no accurate population size is available for any of the African pangolins, making it extremely difficult for conservationists to put effective conservation plans in place for the survival of the species.

Trophic Cascade: A trophic cascade is a side-effect when a species of the ecosystem is reduced or removed. This triggers a series of events/effects on other species that changes the balance of the entire ecosystem. 

- Environment Buddy

Phinda's Pangolin Reintroduction Project

South Africa has a proud history in pangolin research, so it is not surprising that its veterinary and eco-monitoring programs have also risen to the challenge of saving the African pangolin from certain extinction. In South Africa, more and more pangolins are being confiscated from poachers by authorities as the crisis deepens. Those pangolins lucky enough to still be alive are taken to specific recovery centres to be rehabilitated and later released.

The pangolin release project at Phinda in KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa, is unique for two reasons. Firstly, the Phinda initiative is a reintroduction program. Pangolins became locally extinct in the area some time ago and Phinda is the perfect release area for rehabilitated pangolins.

Secondly, Phinda has excellent anti-poaching units that patrol and protect the reserve; making it an ideal area to release pangolins in. African Conservation Experience (ACE) supports the Phinda pangolin release project because the research on how pangolins are rehabilitated is of great scientific and conservation value to the survival of one of Africa’s most unique animals.

The team at Phinda walk with a pangolin
The team at Phinda relocate a pangolin on the reserve.

Want to know more?

Click the links below to learn more about the pangolin, and what you can do to help!
A pangolin curled up

Watch 'Eye of the Pangolin', a Pangolin Documentary from Pangolin.Africa (external source).