Five facts about one of the world’s most trafficked mammals

To mark World Pangolin Day we take a moment to reflect on the plight of this little scaly anteater

The pangolin may not attract as much attention as elephants or tigers but these scaly-skinned creatures are the planet’s most trafficked animal.

Each year, thousands of pangolins from Asia and, more recently, Africa are hunted for their meat, which is considered a delicacy in China and Vietnam. The scales are thought to cure a range of ailments from asthma to rheumatism and arthritis according to local traditional medicine.

While eight pangolin species are protected under national and international laws (two are listed as Critically Endangered on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species), enforcement remains a huge challenge.

The World Wildlife Federation estimates that from 2011-2013, around 115,000-235,000 pangolins were killed, based on the number of seizures logged, and that this represents “only the tip of the trade,” according to the environmental group.

In response to continued hunting of pangolins, particularly in Africa where new trade channels are opening up, numerous campaigns have been launched to raise awareness, including World Pangolin Day on February 18.

This EIA’s map shows the sheer scale of pangolins illegally trafficked around the world from 2000 to 2017.

According to wildlife campaigners, the future survival of the pangolin depends on a fundamental shift in consumer attitudes towards consuming its meat and using its scales. Chinese basketball player Yao Ming successfully launched a campaign against the sale of shark fin soup that has hurt sales, despite it being considered a delicacy.

In China, there are signs that attitudes towards eating pangolins are shifting as the environmental movement among younger Chinese social media users grows. The Shanghaiist blog recently reported the case of a women nicknamed the “Pangolin Princess” who was arrested in the southern city of Shenzhen after posting pictures of herself eating pangolin soup and pangolin blood rice in 2012-2013. The soup contained a number of other rare meats including snake and owl. The pictures, which included animals alive in cages before being eaten, caused outrage among fellow netizens. But in order for real change to take place enthusiastic online commentary must transfer into real world behaviour. 


Five pangolin facts

  • Pangolin comes from “penggulung,” a Malay word for roller – the action a pangolin takes in self-defence

  • In 2012, Sir David Attenborough chose the Southeast Asian Sunda pangolin, as one of ten special animals he would save from extinction

  • The prehistoric pangolin walks on its hind legs due to the length and curvature of its impressive claws

  • A pangolin’s tongue can be longer than its body – up to 40cm when fully extended

  • Pangolins are the only mammals in the world covered in scales