One voice for Animals Guest blog by Pangolin Specialist Group
Pangolins, or scaly anteaters as they are otherwise known, are unique mammals covered in hard scales, comprised of keratin. They predate almost exclusively on ants and termites and are predominantly nocturnal and elusive, secretive mammals.
Overexploitation - The primary threat to most pangolin species is illegal hunting and poaching for local use and illegal international trade for Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM).
Recent estimates based on seizure data suggest that the equivalent of more than 895,000 pangolins were trafficked globally between 2000 and 2019 (1). This trade mainly involves pangolin scales and meat, which are primarily trafficked to East and Southeast Asia, and to a lesser extent other body parts.
Scales for Traditional Medicines
Asian Medicine, particularly in China and Vietnam. They are believed to be a cure for ailments ranging from heart disease to cancer, and to help lactating women produce milk. Like rhino horn and human fingernails, pangolin scales are made of keratin and there is no western scientific evidence that they are efficacious in medicine.
Similarly, pangolin scales are used to treat myriad medical conditions in Traditional African Medicine, especially in West and Central Africa, which is known as ‘Muti’ or ‘Juju’.
Meat consumed locally or as a luxury product
Pangolins have been consumed as a source of protein in virtually every range country throughout human history.
In Asia, this continues, but in many places local consumption has been foregone in favour of selling the animals into illicit, international trade because of the high prices pangolins can fetch. The majority of this trade is destined to China and Vietnam, as well as other countries in Southeast Asia, where pangolins are consumed as a delicacy. The high price and perceived rarity means consumers eat pangolins as a luxury product to demonstrate their wealth and reinforce social status, for example, businesspeople trying to impress clients on signing contracts.
In Africa, pangolins are eaten as wild meat, especially in West and Central Africa, where local rather than international trade is predominant. Estimates suggest that at least 400,000 pangolins are hunting and consumed locally in Central Africa each year (2).
Ongoing illegal trade despite international protection
Illicit international trade in pangolins and their parts takes place despite international protection afforded to the species. Pangolins have a long history in CITES, the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora, which aims to ensure that wild species do not go extinct as a result of international trade. Each pangolin species was included in CITES Appendix II in 1995, meaning trade should be closely regulated, and in the year 2000, zero export quotas for wild-caught specimens traded for primarily commercial purposes were established for the Asian pangolins, in effect, a proxy trade ban. Due to ongoing concerns about the overexploitation of pangolin populations, each species was included in CITES Appendix I at CoP17 in 2016, establishing an international trade ban on commercial trade in wild-caught pangolins and their derivatives. Pangolins are also protected species in most of their range countries under national legislation, but illegal harvest and trade continues seemingly unabated.
There are 8 species:
Black-bellied Pangolin (Phataginus tetradactyla)
IUCN Status - Vulnerable
Distribution - Cameroon; Central African Republic; Congo; Côte d’Ivoire; The Democratic Republic of the Congo; Equatorial Guinea; Gabon; Ghana; Guinea; Liberia; Nigeria; Sierra Leone.
Reproduction - Breeding in the black-bellied pangolin is understood to be almost continuous, with young born after a gestation period of approximately 140 days.
Distinguishing characteristics - The black-bellied pangolin’s tail can be twice the length of its body, hence the species’ name. Certain physical characteristics separate the arboreal black-bellied pangolin and white-bellied pangolin from Africa’s ground pangolins, including smaller size, very small first forelimb claws, larger eyes, irregular arrangement of scales, the presence of tails pads used for climbing, a long prehensile tail, and the presence of hair on the lower sections of forelimbs as opposed to scales. Both of the tree-dwelling species have long tails, however the white-bellied pangolin’s is notably shorter
Facts - The black-bellied pangolin has 75 vertebrae in total, with 47 comprising the tail.
Temmincks Pangolin (Smutsia temminckii)
IUCN Status - Vulnerable
Distribution - Angola; Botswana; Burundi; Central African Republic; Chad; Ethiopia; Kenya; Malawi; Mozambique; Namibia; Rwanda; South Africa; South Sudan; Sudan; Tanzania, United Republic of; Uganda; Zambia; Zimbabwe.
Reproduction - The Temminck’s pangolin gives birth to a single offspring after a gestation period of approximately 139 days.
Distinguishing characteristics - The Temminck’s pangolin is the only species found in southern Africa and can be easily distinguished from the two noticeably smaller tree-dwelling African species of pangolin by its fossorial as opposed to arboreal lifestyle and regular scale pattern. Unlike the larger giant pangolin it inhabits dry and arid savannah and desert environments.
Facts - The Temminck’s pangolin often uses the burrows of other animals including aardvarks and aardwolves.
White-bellied Pangolin (Phataginus tricuspis)
IUCN Status – Endangered
Distribution - Angola; Benin; Burundi; Cameroon; Central African Republic; Congo; Congo, The Democratic Republic of the; Côte d’Ivoire; Equatorial Guinea; Gabon; Ghana; Guinea; Guinea-Bissau; Kenya; Liberia; Nigeria; Rwanda; Sierra Leone; South Sudan; Tanzania, United Republic of; Togo; Uganda; Zambia.
Reproduction - One young is born after a gestation period of approximately 150 days.
Distinguishing characteristics - Certain physical characteristics separate the arboreal white-bellied pangolin and black-bellied pangolin from Africa’s ground pangolins, including smaller size, very small first forelimb claws, larger eyes, irregular arrangement of scales, the presence of tails pads used for climbing, the length of the tail which is prehensile, and the presence of hair on the lower sections of forelimbs, as opposed to scales. While both of the tree dwelling species have long tails, the white-bellied pangolin’s is notably shorter.
Facts - The white-bellied pangolin is the most frequently encountered pangolin in Africa.
Giant Pangolin (Smutsia gigantea)
IUCN Status - Endangered
Distribution - Cameroon; Central African Republic; Congo; Congo, The Democratic Republic of the; Côte d’Ivoire; Equatorial Guinea (Equatorial Guinea (mainland)); Gabon; Ghana; Guinea; Guinea-Bissau; Liberia; Nigeria; Rwanda; Senegal; Sierra Leone; South Sudan; Tanzania, United Republic of; Uganda.
Reproduction - The giant pangolin gives birth to a single young.
Distinguishing characteristics - The giant pangolin is the largest living pangolin species, weighing up to 35 kg. Like the Temminck’s pangolin it is easily distinguished from the much smaller tree-dwelling African pangolins by a regular scale pattern, fossorial lifestyle, and the lack of pads at the end of the tail, which are used for climbing in the arboreal species. Although its geographic range overlaps slightly with the savannah and desert dwelling ground pangolin, the giant pangolin prefers moist habitats and being close to water sources.
Facts - The giant pangolin is the largest extant species of pangolin. It is thought the giant pangolin is now extinct in Rwanda.
Sunda Pangolin (Manis javanica)
IUCN Status - Critically endangered
Distribution - Brunei Darussalam; Cambodia; Indonesia; Lao People’s Democratic Republic; Malaysia; Myanmar; Singapore; Thailand; Viet Nam.
Reproduction - Sunda pangolins usually only have one offspring after a gestation period of between 6 and 7 months. Females reach reproductive maturity towards the end of their first year.
Distinguishing characteristics - The Sunda pangolin is the most widely distributed species of pangolin in Southeast Asia. While its geographic range overlaps with that of the Chinese pangolin, it can be distinguished by fewer rows of scales across the back, shorter forelimb claws, and a longer more slender tail. It also leads a more arboreal lifestyle than the Chinese pangolin. Populations of pangolins in the Philippines were until recently considered to be Sunda pangolins, but are now recognized to be the distinct Philippine pangolin. Sunda pangolins have fewer scale rows across the back than the Philippine pangolin, along with larger scales and a longer head and body to tail length ratio.
Facts - The Sunda pangolin has a long history of being traded internationally. In Asia it has the undesirable status as the mammal most frequently found in illicit trade. Sunda pangolin scales are predominately dark brown in colour, though they are frequently found with ‘white’ scales on their tails; the reason for this characteristic is unknown (yet!).
Philippine Pangolin (Manis culionensis)
IUCN Status – Critically Endangered
Distribution - Philippines
Reproduction - Little is known about the reproduction of the Philippine pangolin, though it is understood to be similar to that of the Sunda pangolin, with one offspring born after a gestation period of between 3 and 4 months. It is understood that females reach maturity in their first year.
Distinguishing characteristics - The Philippine pangolin was only recently described as a species distinct from the Sunda pangolin. It has the greatest number of scale rows across its back of all Asian pangolins. It can be distinguished from the Sunda pangolin by its smaller scales and a shorter head and body to tail length ratio.
Facts - The Philippine pangolin is endemic to the Philippines, inhabiting four islands including Palawan and Culion. Little is known about its ecology and biology.
Indian Pangolin (Manis crassicaudata)
IUCN status – Endangered
Distribution - Bangladesh, India, Nepal, Pakistan and Sri Lanka.
Reproduction - The Indian pangolin usually has one offspring, though two have been reported, after a gestation period of 65-70 days, which is much shorter than for other species of pangolin.
Distinguishing characteristics - The Indian pangolin has the most western distribution in Asia with a range extending into two regions of Pakistan. It can be distinguished from other Asian pangolins by the size of its scales, which reach a considerably larger size than scales of the Chinese, Sunda and Philippine pangolins. Like the Chinese pangolin it has a principally fossorial as opposed to arboreal lifestyle and noticeably larger front claws than the Sunda and Philippine pangolins.
Facts - Although normally shy, Indian pangolins are reported to wander into villages and have been known to dig through concrete and into houses.
Chinese Pangolin (Manis pentadactyla)
IUCN Status – Critically endangered
Distribution - Bangladesh; Bhutan; China; Hong Kong; India; Lao People’s Democratic Republic; Myanmar; Nepal; Taiwan, Province of China; Thailand; Viet Nam
Reproduction - Usually only one offspring is born to the Chinese pangolin after a gestation period of between 318 and 372 days. Females reach reproductive maturity towards the end of their first year.
Distinguishing characteristics - The Chinese pangolin is distinguished from other Asian pangolins by its almost helmeted appearance, smaller scales than the Indian pangolin, a larger ear pinna, a post-anal depression in the skin, and a narrowing near the distal end of the tail. While its range overlaps with that of the Sunda pangolin, these species can be distinguished by the number of scale rows across the back, the relative length of the claws on their forelimbs, and by the length and shape of the tail, being shorter and blunter in the Chinese pangolin. The lifestyle between the Sunda pangolin and Chinese pangolin also differs with the former being more arboreal and the latter more fossorial.
Facts - Chinese pangolins spend the winter months in deep burrows that maintain stable temperatures and are excavated near termite nests, which supply a source of food. In China, the species’ distribution is understood to be closely correlated with two termite species (Coptotermes formosanus and Termes formosanus).