Pangolins are one of the world’s least known and most hunted animals on earth. They are one of the more unique and peculiar animals that exist today. This mammal is prehistoric and has been around for 80 million years. Several species of pangolins live in trees, hanging from branches using their giant tails. Their habitat is highly varied, including savannah grasslands, dense woodlands, flooded, tropical and sub-tropical forest areas.
Pangolins use long claws to tear into insect nests before using tongues longer than their body to lap up ants and termites. This unique combination of natural talents allows them to consume 70 million insects per year. This regulates social insect populations, which is vital to the sustainability of many ecosystems. Pangolins are covered in tough, overlapping scales. They are the only mammals wholly covered in scales and they use those scales to protect themselves from predators in the wild. When threatened, a pangolin will immediately curl into a tight ball and will use their sharp-scaled tails to defend themselves.
Eight different pangolin species can be found across Asia and Africa. They are one of the most trafficked mammals in those areas. Pangolins are in high demand in countries like China and Vietnam. Their meat is considered a delicacy and pangolin scales are used in traditional medicine and folk remedies. All eight pangolin species are protected under national and international laws, but there is still growing international illegal trade in pangolins.
Some estimates calculate that an average of approximately 100,000 pangolins are poached and shipped into China and Vietnam every year. More than a million pangolins are estimated to have been taken from the wild since 2000, with poaching for trade in Asian markets considered the main cause of population declines. This is estimated to be up to 80% in some species over the past 20 years, with a further 80% decline predicted.
Chinese pangolin – Critically Endangered
Sunda pangolin – Critically Endangered
Indian pangolin – Endangered
Palawan pangolin – Endangered
Ground pangolin – Vulnerable
White-bellied pangolin – Vulnerable
Giant pangolin – Vulnerable
Black-bellied pangolin – Vulnerable
Pangolin species vary in size from 3.5 lbs. to a maximum of about 73 lbs. Male and female pangolins differ in weight; in most species, males are 10-50 percent heavier than females. They vary in color from light to yellowish brown through olive to dark brown. With small heads and jaws lacking teeth, pangolins have amazingly long, muscular, and sticky tongues that are perfect for reaching and lapping up ants and termites in deep cavities. Pangolins have poor vision, so they locate termite and ant nests with their strong sense of smell.
Pangolin limbs are well adapted for digging. Each paw has five toes, and their forefeet have three long, curved claws. They shuffle on all four limbs. They can run surprisingly fast and will often rise on their hind limbs to sniff the air. Pangolins are also capable swimmers and climbers.
Pangolins are solitary, most are nocturnal and highly secretive; thus, it is difficult for scientists to study them in the wild, and many mysteries remain about their behavior and habits.
Pangolins reach sexual maturity at two years, and most pangolins give birth to a single offspring. When born, pangolins are about six inches long and weigh about 12 ounces. Their scales begin to harden by the second day. Pangolin mothers nurture their young in nesting burrows. A mother will protectively roll around her baby when sleeping or if threatened. Babies nurse for three to four months but can eat termites and ants at one month.
It is unknown how long pangolins can live in the wild, though pangolins have reportedly lived as long as twenty years in captivity.