By Cathy Cunningham

Below the mighty feet of the elephants and rhinos that roam Kwazulu-Natal’s vast terrain, in burrows nestled deep within the earth they tread on, lives a far more modest little creature. A creature that is 1/500th of the size of an elephant, yet capable of defending itself from predators as big as a lion. A prehistoric creature that often walks on his hind legs like a mini T-rex, but never found fame in Jurassic Park. A creature with a tongue longer than its entire body. This mystical little mammal is the pangolin. You may have never heard of the pangolin, and you almost certainly have never encountered one. You’re not alone. Like a friendly yet reclusive neighbor who keeps to himself and minds his own business, the pangolin is rarely seen or heard. Yet the pangolin is the world’s most highly traded mammal on the black market, and running out of time. 

Sometimes referred to as a “scaly anteater”, the pangolin is found in Asia and Sub-Saharan Africa. Its body is covered in an armor of scales made of keratin, the same protein as our fingernails, its underbelly soft and sparsely furry. The name ‘pangolin’ is derived from the Malay word “penggulung,” meaning “roller”. With seemingly more hidden powers than Clark Kent, this little roller has the ability to defend itself peacefully from large predators by curling up into an impenetrable ball, and also attacking insects by closing its ears and nostrils when threatened. Pangolins perform an important ecological role in their pursuit of food; they control social insect populations. Using their powerful front legs and curved claws to dig through the earth, each pangolin extracts and consumes up to 70 million insects per year with its extraordinarily long and sticky tongue. 

So why is this shy, solitary, ecologically important little creature vanishing from our earth? Simply put, the pangolin is being eaten to the point of extinction. There is an insatiable demand for nearly all of its body parts, principally emanating from China. Pangolins are being hunted for food, for use in traditional medicine, and as part of a booming illegal international trade in scales, skins, and meat. Over 1 million pangolins were poached in the last decade alone. As populations are eliminated in Asia, the trade lines have set their sights on Africa as the new harvesting ground. 

Once a protein supplement for villagers in areas surrounding the mammals’ habitats, pangolin meat has become a ‘luxury’ within Asian markets, a fashionable food for newly-rich urbanites. Traditional Asian medicine believes that pangolin scales have healing powers for a spectrum of bodily complaints and ailments, from wind to cancer. As a result, scales can now fetch the exorbitant price of $3,000 per kilogram. It is somewhat ironic that the very armor that protects the pangolin so efficiently from carnivorous predators in the wild, is the main reason that humans are hunting it so aggressively. And humans are the predators that the pangolin is most defenseless against. In fact, the pangolin is so placid that it can simply be picked up by a pair of human hands. 

Demand for pangolin parts far exceeds supply, making the trade extremely lucrative for poachers. Pangolin fetuses have become valuable trophies for sale, due to the belief that when consumed, often in a soup, the unborn pangopup will somehow increase a man’s virility. And this is a key factor in the eradication of the species; pangolins only give birth to one offspring at a time, and there is a bounty on its head (and its mother’s) before it is even born. 

Alarmingly, the demand for live pangolins is also increasing. A live pangolin can fetch around $1000 in a restaurant; it is killed on premises when ordered by a patron. The pangolin dies a slow and painful death in this instance. First, the pangolin is knocked unconscious and then its throat is cut and its blood drained as it dies. The pangolin is then boiled to remove its scales. The diner eats various parts of the body and drinks the blood, which is often added to wine. 

Very little is known about the illegal pangolin trade other than its devastating extent, evidenced by continuous confiscations of thousands of pangolins at any one time. The increase in poaching for the Asian market is especially concerning. In March 2014, 2,000 kg of pangolin scales worth over US$1.2 million was seized in Hong Kong and the year before another 2,000 kg seized in Vietnam. In 2013, a Chinese vessel was found to have 10,000 kg of pangolin meat onboard. These are the shipments that are seized and reported, and are likely just the tip of the iceberg. Data is therefore often unreliable, underpinned by a lack of awareness in both the general public and governments. This lack of information makes the trade increasingly difficult to monitor and halt. 

Time is running out for the pangolin. Their protection and repopulation is critical if the species is to survive. Just as only a rhino needs a rhino horn, only a pangolin needs its scales. Logically, our fingernails would equally possess the “medicinal qualities” that pangolins’ scales are being used for (and their collection wouldn’t lead to the eradication of an entire species). Although not a well-known mammal, the pangolin is the number one target for poachers. Only public and government awareness, together with fast-acting conservation efforts can save it from extinction. On this World Wildlife Day, please introduce the pangolin and its plight to someone you know. And if you can, please help us at the WTF protect the species and donate: www.wildtomorrowfund.org . Let’s tip the scales back in the pangolin’s favor, before it is too late.