The pangolin, also known as the scaly anteater, is the world’s most trafficked animal. Its body parts are sold in China and Vietnam as a delicacy or are used for their mythical healing properties.
This beautiful creature is now so endangered that it is under the protection of international law. Looking into its gentle eyes, one can only hope that we are not too late.
Having travelled through game reserves for over 40 years without ever having set eyes on one, we could not believe our luck when we came across a very much alive pangolin on a night drive from Rhino Post Safari Lodge in the Kruger National Park.
We felt quite emotional seeing it curled into a defensive ball, its armour-like scales protecting its soft underbelly, legs and face. We stood in awe, bestowing every possible blessing for protection and procreation onto this little being.
Pangolins need a natural environment in which to thrive, and loss of habitat due to increasing development is a big threat for the species. These small innocent beings are shy but will bond with humans, given time to build trust. However, they are best left to grow and breed in protected natural areas such as game reserves.
Organisations such as Save Pangolins are doing what they can to increase laws to protect pangolin natural habitats and reduce poaching.
Here are ten fascinating facts about the pangolin:
1. The hard, overlapping scales of the pangolin are actually made of keratin, which is the same substance found in our nails and hair. The scales continue to grow throughout their life.
2. The pangolin does not have teeth but uses a thick, strong and sticky tongue to catch its food. The pangolin’s tongue is longer than its head and body when extended – it is attached at its pelvis and last pair of ribs, and the rest of it is stored in its chest cavity.
3. Their stomach has keratinous spines projecting into its interior. Small ingested stones accumulated in the stomach help to mash and grind prey, thus working in much the same manner as a bird’s gizzard.
4. Pangolins are capable swimmers and, according to Save Pangolins, “while some pangolin species such as the African ground pangolin (Manis temmincki) are completely terrestrial, others, such as the African tree pangolin (Manis tricuspis), are adept climbers, using their claws and semi-prehensile tails to grip bark and scale trees.”
5. When threatened, they curl up into a tight ball and may also emit a noxious acid from glands near the anus.
6. The lifespan of a pangolin in the wild is unknown as they are shy creatures and are, therefore, quite difficult to study. However, some have been recorded to live as long as 20 years in captivity.
7. Adult pangolins are like little hermits, preferring to live a solitary life rather than in pairs or families.
8. Pangolins are nocturnal animals.
9. Pangolins eat insects and it is estimated that they can eat up to 70 million insects a year. Save Pangolins also explains that they “have special muscles that seal their nostrils and ears shut, protecting them from insects. They also have special muscles in their mouths which prevent ants and termites from escaping after capture.”
10. Mother pangolins keep their young in burrows until they are old enough to ride on their mother’s tail. The mother curls up snugly around the baby pangolin at night or if she senses danger.
The more I have learnt, the more the pangolin has won my heart with its funny shaped body and kind eyes and the more I am also horrified by its impending extinction.
To read more about pangolins, have a look at our online magazine story: The Luckiest Pangolin Alive