A Struggle to Save the Scaly Pangolin


By Erica Goode   March 30, 2015

“PHNOM PENH, Cambodia — A peculiar creature that looks like a four-legged artichoke is thought to be the planet’s most frequently trafficked mammal.” [The journalist side of me appreciates that lead into the story]

Pangolins are insectivores with a tongue longer than its body and a tail so powerful it can hang upside down from tree branches.

Pangolin meat is considered a delicacy in parts of China, where it is believed to nourish the kidneys. Pangolin scales, made of keratin, like human fingernails, are used in traditional medicine to treat skin diseases and other ailments. Trade in the animal has a long history: In 1820, King George III of England was presented with a suit of armor made from pangolin scales.

But the demand (and consequential supply) of pangolins has grown sharply in recent decades. Poaching has increased not only in Southeast Asia but also in Africa.

Customs officers seize thousands of pangolins and hundreds of pounds of pangolin scales each year, often disguised as other goods. In late January, officials in Uganda said they had seized two tons of pangolin skins packed in boxes identified as communications equipment. In France a few years ago, more than 200 pounds of pangolin scales were discovered buried in bags of dog biscuits.

Most countries, including Cambodia, have laws against hunting pangolins. But enforcement is often weak, and the incentive for local poachers in poor rural areas to catch and sell pangolins and other wildlife to middlemen for smuggling organizations is strong.

But so many have been killed that they and Chinese pangolins are listed as critically endangered by the International Union for Conservation of Nature. The international union considers all of the pangolin species threatened.

“The pangolin runs the risk of becoming extinct before most people have even heard of them,” Britain’s Prince William said last fall.

Peter Knights, the chief executive of WildAid, said that his and other conservation groups were mounting efforts to rescue the pangolin in advance of the 2016 meeting of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora.

Pangolins are listed under the convention’s Appendix II as animals that are not yet threatened with extinction but may become so. WildAid and other organizations argue that pangolins should be moved to Appendix I, which prohibits all commercial trade.

“The pangolin’s odd appearance has not helped its cause, Ms. Olsson said.” [Ouch haha that’s not very nice]

“That’s one of the problems with species like pangolins,” she said. “It’s not huge and not very charismatic. It’s small and weird and just disappearing.” [wow, even nicer]

A Pokemon character, Sandslash, was loosely based on the pangolin, thought to be the only scaled mammal.

Once thought to be a relative of the anteater, the sloth and the armadillo, the pangolin belongs to the taxonomic order Pholidota, and genetic studies suggest it is more closely related to raccoons and giant pandas than to animals it resembles.

Burrowing in trees or tunnels, pangolins have weak eyes but keen noses to smell insects and powerful claws to dig them up. Their long tongues are sticky, able to scoop up hundreds of ants at once, their ears closing up to prevent the ants from swarming inside. Like skunks, pangolins can emit a foul odor when threatened.

The animals are easily stressed in captivity and do not do well with artificial food. But with the proper mash of ants and termites, they can thrive.

read more/see video at:


[I thought this article related well to what we have been reading about in Placing Animals. The ethical debate regarding human use of animals is really interesting. Where do we draw the line and what are effective ways to actually enforce restrictions?]

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