Pangolins in Peril

The Pangolin: a mammal species being pushed ever closer to extinction by the illegal, international trade. Did you know that pangolins are the most illegally trafficked animals in the world? So exactly what is it, that makes these animals so ‘desirable’ in Africa and Asia? We take a look at the facts surrounding this exceptionally unusual creature and it’s rapid demise.

The Facts

  1. There are eight living species of pangolin in the world. Only 4 of these occur in Africa and just one in Southern Africa!
  2. South Africa’s pangolin species is the Temminck’s ground pangolin (Smutsia temminckii).
  3. This species is mainly nocturnal and is hardly ever seen during daylight.
  4. The Ground pangolin is listed as vulnerable on the IUCN Red List Of Threatened Species and can be found in Appendix I of the CITES list.
  5. Their total length varies between 70cm and 105cm. Between 35cm and 40cm of this is the tail.
  6. Their average weight is 11kg but they can vary between 7 and 18kg.
  7. Pangolins are born with a set amount of scales which they have for the rest of their life. They cannot regrow them.
  8. Temminck’s ground pangolins have between 11 and 13 rows of scales on their back and the same amount on their tail.
  9. The belly, the inner parts of the limbs and the lateral sides of the face are not covered in scales.
  10. To protect these weaker parts of the body, pangolins roll up into a ball with scales facing outwards.
  11. Pangolin scales are mainly made from keratin and have very sharp edges to help protect from predators.

Diet

Pangolins are well known for feeding on ants and termites but not all species have a diet based on both these insects. The Temminck’s ground pangolin prefers ants and even has a favourite species. In a study of 15 wild ground pangolins, stomach and intestine analysis showed 96% of their diet to be made up of Anoplolepis custodiens ants. These are small to medium ants varying between 2 and 10mm in size. The queen can be up to 13mm and size does matter! Pangolins prefer the bigger ants for more meat and more keratin. To increase the success of their ant-eating habits, the pangolin species have adopted a few remarkable skills. Their claws are long and extremely strong. Paired with strong front feet they are able to break open ants (or termite) nests. The tongue is long and sticky and used to reach deep into the mound or nest which the ants then stick to.

Conservation Issues

OBSERVATION

Observation and encounters with these animals is very difficult. They are nocturnal, shy and mostly solitary. In South Africa’s huge Kruger National Park, only 73 pangolin sightings have been recorded between 1993 and 2013. Studies show that the average home-range for an individual in South Africa is 8.33 km². In Zimbabwe it is quite a bit smaller covering an area of 6.44 km². In their home range, the pangolin is territorial and will only be found with another if mating or a female with her baby.

ELECTRIC FENCES

For every 100km of fencing around a reserve, an average of 6 pangolins are killed by electrocution

POACHING

The poaching of these animals is concentrated around 2 main beliefs.

Locally – People in all African countries where pangolins are found kill them to eat as bush meat. The scales are also used to make medicine or just various body parts used such as the head.

Internationally – Certain Asian cultures believe that consuming parts of the pangolin can cure genital diseases.  Wearing a scale on the human body will supposedly bring you luck and fortune.

HABITAT LOSS

It is estimated that 48% of pangolin habitat in South Africa has been lost between 1985 and 2015. This is mainly due to the growth of cities and farmlands but thankfully the loss is not so significant in all parts of Africa.

What can be done?

  • Carrying out nocturnal monitoring drives can increase the chances of pangolin observation due to their nocturnal habits.
  • In South Africa, projects have been set-up to look at alternative fencing methods. This involves a triple trip wire instead of a single one meaning the wires can start slightly higher off the ground.
  • Education must be the key and efforts are being made both in Asia and Africa to change beliefs. Users in Africa and Asia need to understand that there are no proven special or medicinal powers of pangolin body parts. Well known celebrities are even using their fame for the cause, most well known is Jackie Chan who made this entertaining but informative Pangolin martial arts video!
  • As is often the case, legislation in the countries where pangolins are being poached and traded needs improvement. Only when the demand stops will the poaching stop and give this species a better future.
  • The nature reserves established throughout the range of South Africa’s pangolin are the best way forward for protecting their habitat.

Further pangolin information can be found through the following links:

http://www.iucnredlist.org/details/12765/0

http://www.pangolinsg.org/

https://www.ewt.org.za/Reddata/pdf/RLA_Smutsia%20temminckii_VU.pdf

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