South Africa’s rarest: The pangolin

Posted on 3 April 2020

The pangolin is one of South Africa’s rarest animals for a very sad reason indeed. These scaly mammals are known the world over as the most trafficked animal in the world.

In recent years, pangolins have been subjected to excessive poaching and hunting which has resulted in their critically endangered status.

The scales are used for traditional medicine in Asia, most notably in China. Their meat is also considered a delicacy across Asia but most prevalently in Vietnam.

There are no actual medicinal benefits that the scales contain. Keratin is the protein found in pangolin scales which is the same protein found in human finger nails.

In Africa there are four species of pangolin:

The white-bellied pangolin


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Stay tuned as we share stories of World Pangolin Day celebrations hosted by our members. Keep an eye on our feed over the next two weeks for more! . Image of a white-bellied pangolin by Guy Colborne. . . . #WorldPangolinDay #ScalingUpPangolinConservation #pangolin #protectpangolins #savethepangolin #conservation #endpoaching #illegalwildlifetrade #whitebelliedpangolin

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The black-bellied pangolin

The giant pangolin


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It may look like a walking artichoke to you, but this here is the world’s most trafficked animal in the world, the Pangolin. They may look like reptiles because of their scales, but they are actually the only mammals to have scales. They are made out of keratin, the same material human hair and fingernails as well as rhino horn is composed of. There are eight species of Pangolins, half live in Africa and the other in Asia. One impressive ability these animals can do is when they are threatened, they curl themselves into a ball, which defends them from local predators such as lions and tigers. But there’s a downside to this feature, it makes them more vulnerable to poachers who hunt them for the illegal wildlife trade. From the Chinese Pangolin (Manis Pendactyla) to the Giant Pangolin of Central Africa, all eight species are in severe danger of extinction. They are heavily poached for their meat, which is considered a delicacy in some countries and for their scales, which are said, like rhino horn, to have magical healing powers, despite lack of evidence this is true. But conservation efforts are underway to track down poachers who smuggle pangolins and shut down the illegal wildlife trade for good. Remember, when the buying stops, the Killing can too! #worldpangolinday #giantpangolin #chinesepangolin #savethepangolins #rareandwild #outofafrica #outofasia #racingextinction #endwildlifetrade

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The Temminck’s pangolin

Pangolins are solitary, nocturnal animals that feed predominantly on ants. During the day, pangolins will sleep in burrows. They typically take up residency in an old aardvark or aardwolves burrows and rarely dig their own.

When frightened or threatened a pangolin will cover its head with its front legs. This exposes its scales, warding off a potential predator. If touched or grabbed, it will roll into a ball and can use its tail to lash at whatever has taken it.

There are four other species of pangolin found in Asia: Indian pangolin, Philippine pangolin, Sunda pangolin and the Chinese pangolin.

In 2016 a campaign highlighting the work done by Zimbabwe’s Pangolin Men showcased the plight of these animals and the work being done to protect them.

The Johannesburg Wildlife Veterinary Hospital is legendary for the work they do to help pangolins that have been rescued from trafficking. The IUCN Pangolin Specialist Group addresses the lack of global understanding about this species and are actively involved in conservation efforts.

According to the IUCN Pangolin Specialist Group and based on seizure data, between 2000 and 2019 the equivalent of more than 895,000 pangolins were trafficked globally.

Aside from illegal poaching and hunting, pangolins are faced with other threats. Habitat loss and degradation and electrocution on electric fences from land use changes have all contributed to the steep decline in the Asian and African pangolin population.


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Why are Temminck’s pangolins considered Vulnerable to the risk of extinction on the IUCN @redlist_of_ecosystems? Temminck’s pangolins aren’t just at risk from illegal hunting for international trade, they are also threatened by land use changes and agricultural practices leading to habitat loss and alteration, as well an increased human presence in previously undisturbed habitat leading to higher rates of illegal hunting. Likewise, in South Africa, they are regularly electrocuted on electric fences. The increasing use of electric fences in South Africa, but also across the species’ range, means the ground-dwelling Temminck’s pangolin is frequently caught on the lower strands and accidentally killed. This image, captured by Darren Pietersen (Africa Vice-Chair of the Pangolin Specialist Group), sadly shows one such instance. . We’re showcasing facts about the Temminck’s pangolin on day 7 of our Eight Days of Pangolins to celebrate World Pangolin Day on Saturday 15 February. Use the hashtags #WorldPangolinDay and #ScalingUpPangolinConservation to help us spread the word about pangolins and the threats they face! . . . #pangolin #temminckspangolin #conservation #wildlife #threatenedspecies #illegalwildlifetrade #endpoaching #savepangolins #protectpangolins

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Pangolins are extremely peaceful animals and it would be a huge loss if they were to go extinct. With the coronavirus outbreak, a temporary ban has been placed on wildlife consumption on China. The city of Shenzhen announced that a law to ban the consumption and production of dog and cat meat has been passed. This will also include a number of wild animals.

Read: Shenzhen permanently bans dog, cat meat consumption.

This is a small victory for the species, as China is a major consumer of pangolin scales. Vietnam, another major consumer of pangolin meat, has followed in China’s footsteps and has drafted a wildlife trade ban, which should be finalised this month.

If you would like to learn more about this incredibly illusive, gentle creature, South African filmmakers Bruce Young and Johan Vermeulen travelled around Africa in search of the continent’s four pangolin species. You can watch this 45-minute film for free online at Pangolin.Africa.

Interesting pangolin facts:

– A baby pangolin is called a pangopup

– Pangolins are the only mammals to have protective scales covering their skin

– Pangolins live in hollow trees as well as burrows

– Some species of pangolin have a tongue that measures over 40 cm

– Pangolin can live up to the age of 45


Image: Melanie van Zyl

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