What are pangolins?

Manis javanica - Save Vietnam's Wildlife: Pangolins; short film commissioned by Wildscreen, made by Five Films

With their distinctive physical characteristics, pangolins have been compared to ‘artichokes with legs and a tail’, ‘living dinosaurs’ and ‘walking pinecones’, but this unique group of animals are in fact the world’s only scaly mammals. The entire uppersides of all pangolin species are covered in thick, hard scales that are made of keratin, the same material as human hair and nails, and rhino horn.

Pangolins are extremely evolutionarily distinct and are the product of over 80 million years of unique evolution. Despite being similar in appearance to anteaters and aardvarks, pangolins have a dissimilar lineage and are actually more closely related to Carnivora. Archaeological evidence suggests that pangolins may have originated from Europe, but are now only found in Asia and Africa. Asian pangolins can be distinguished from African pangolins due to the course, bristly hairs between their scales.

The word ‘pangolin’ comes from the Malay ‘penngguling’, which means ‘something that rolls up’. When threatened, all pangolin species roll up into an impenetrable ball, sticking out the scales on their backs and protecting their vulnerable undersides that lack scales and are covered in sparse patches of hair. This effective armour helps to protect them from their natural predators, although it doesn’t protect them from poachers who can simply pick them up. Furthermore, they produce hissing and puffing sounds and lash out with their sharply edged tails to defend themselves.

There are eight pangolin species, four of which are found in Africa and four in Asia and every species is threatened with extinction. The largest extant pangolin species is the giant ground pangolin which can grow to lengths of up to 1.8 metres, while the smallest is the black-bellied pangolin which grows to lengths of up to 95 centimetres. The largest pangolins weigh up to a maximum of 33 kilograms when fully grown and the smallest species can weigh just 1.6 kilograms as an adult. Each pangolin species has a different amount of scales on its body, which is dependent on their species and size, but their scales usually make up around 20 percent of their total weight. Pangolins are sexually dimorphic and males can be distinguished from females by their size, as they are usually between 10 and 50 percent heavier, although the male thick-tailed pangolin can be up to 90 percent heavier than the female. The colour of each pangolin species’ scales vary in colour between olive and dark brown and, similarly to human hair, they grow continuously throughout a pangolin’s life, although the edges are worn down as they burrow.

Who’s who?

Asian pangolins

Common name: Sunda pangolin

Scientific name: Manis javanica

Range: across the mainland and islands of Southeast Asia, from Myanmar, Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam to Indonesia, Singapore and Malaysia.

Weight: 4.5 - 14 kg

Total length: 75 – 122 cm

Distinctive characteristics: the Sunda pangolin has exclusively brown scales apart from a single white scale on its tail, and fully grown adults usually have between 900 and 1,000 scales across their whole body. The male Sunda pangolin can be up to 50 percent larger than the female.

Conservation status: Critically Endangered

Common name:Philippine pangolin

Scientific name: Manis culionensis

Range: four islands in the Palawan and Culion region of the Philippines

Weight: 1.8 - 2.4 kg

Total length: 58 - 176 cm

Distinctive characteristics: the Philippine pangolin has light brown scales and is known to have the most rows of scales across the upperside of its body of any Asian pangolin species. Also known as the balintong, this species was only recently described as a distinct species, with scientists previously believing the Philippine population to be a Sunda pangolin subspecies.

Conservation status: Endangered

Common name: thick-tailed pangolin

Scientific name: Manis crassicaudata

Range: Bangladesh, India (south of the Himalayas), Sri Lanka and small areas of Pakistan

Total length: 84 - 122 kg

Weight: 10 - 16 kg

Distinctive characteristics: the scales of the thick-tailed pangolin are much larger than any other Asian species, and it has the shortest gestation period of any pangolin species, lasting between 65 and 70 days. It has a prehensile tail which is uses for support as it tears through ant and termite nests and has three or four hairs between each of its scales to prevent it from getting stung by its prey.

Conservation status: Endangered

Common name: Chinese pangolin

Scientific name: Manis pentadactyla

Range: many provinces of China south of the Yangtze River, as well as Taiwan, Hong Kong, northern India, Vietnam, Nepal, Bangladesh and Lao People’s Democratic Republic.

Weight: 2 - 7 kg

Total length: 80 - 127 cm

Distinctive characteristics: the Chinese pangolin has light yellow-brown scales and soft, off-white hair on its underside and face. With its small scales, thin tail and scale-covered head this species can be easily distinguished from other Asian pangolin species. Unlike most other pangolin species, the Chinese pangolin has exterior ears which it can close to protect against biting insects while it feeds from ant or termite nests.

Conservation status: Critically Endangered

African pangolins

Common name: ground pangolin

Scientific name: Smutsia temminckii

Range: eastern and southern Africa, from north-eastern Chad and Sudan, south to South Africa.

Weight: 7 - 18 kg

Total length: 65 - 111 cm

Distinctive characteristics: the ground pangolin has yellow-brown scales, a long streamlined body and a cone-shaped head. As it walks, the head of the ground pangolin swings from side to side and its tail drags on the floor, although it is also known to run and walk on its hind legs.

Conservation status: Vulnerable

Common name: giant ground pangolin

Scientific name: Smutsia gigantea

Range: discontinuous distribution through West and Central Africa from Senegal east to Ghana, and Cameroon east to Kenya.

Total length: up to 180 cm

Weight: up to 33 kg

Distinctive characteristics: the giant ground pangolin is the longest and heaviest of the extant pangolin species and is usually found in moist habitats that are close to water. This species also has one of the longest gestation periods of any pangolin species, lasing up to 140 days after which a single offspring is born.

Conservation status: Vulnerable

Common name: black-bellied pangolin

Scientific name: Uromanis tetradactyla

Range: Sierra Leone, east through most of the countries bordering Guinea to Cameroon, and possibly in the Central African Republic. The core of its range lies in the Democratic Republic of Congo, Gabon and may extend as far south as north-west Angola.

Weight: 2.2 – 3.6 kg

Total length: 83 - 115 cm

Distinctive characteristics: the black-bellied pangolin is the most arboreal pangolin species and its tail is able to hold its entire body weight while it dangles from tree branches. The black-bellied pangolin, unlike other mostly nocturnal pangolin species, is frequently active in the day. This species has a black underside and face and its tail can grow to lengths that are twice the size of its body.

Conservation status: Vulnerable

Common name: three-cusped pangolin

Scientific name: Phataginus tricuspis

Range: Guinea and Sierra Leone in West Africa, east to Kenya and Tanzania and south to Zambia and Angola

Weight: 1 - 3 kg

Total length: 60 – 105 cm

Distinctive characteristics: the scales of the three-cusped pangolin are grey to light brown and the underside is white with sparse white hairs and thicker black hairs on its limbs and face. A mainly arboreal species, the three-cusped pangolin has a prehensile tail with a sensory pad on its tip which helps it to climb with ease.

Conservation status: Vulnerable

Pangolin biology

Sunda pangolin feeding
Sunda pangolin using its long tongue to catch insects

All pangolins are insectivores and are well-adapted for digging and burrowing, with their thick, chunky limbs which each have five toes with long, solid claws that can easily demolish ant and termite nests. To protect themselves from getting stung by their prey, pangolins can close their nose and ears using specialised muscles, preventing any ants or termites from entering. Muscles on the outer edge of the mouth prevent prey items from escaping once they have been caught. Certain pangolin species are more opportunistic than others and also take prey items such as worms, crickets, flies and larvae. Pangolins are such voracious feeders that they are thought to consume around 70 million insects every year. Acting as natural pest controllers, they occupy a similar niche to anteaters in South America, which is a prime example of convergent evolution. Pangolins also help to aerate the soil with their burrowing and act as ecosystem engineers, providing burrows for other species.

All pangolin species have long, sticky tongues which they use to collect their ant and termite prey from deep within their nests or hollows of trees. Interestingly, a pangolin’s tongue is actually attached near its pelvis and last set of ribs and, when at rest, it is contained within a cavity in its chest. When a pangolin’s tongue is fully extended it is longer than its entire body and head put together. Pangolins do not have teeth and, rather than chewing, they swallow their prey whole, which is later processed within the stomach. The stomach of the pangolin contains inwards-pointing spines made out of keratin and small stones which help to grind and mash their prey, to facilitate digestion.

Pangolins have strong limbs which are used to dig through the ground to create burrows that contain circular chambers, used for nesting and sleeping during the day. As their front legs and claws dig through the ground, their tails and rear legs are used to balance themselves. Their rear limbs are also used to kick excavated soil out of the entrance of the burrow to keep it clear. All pangolin species dig burrows to sleep in, although the Sunda and three-cusped pangolin are also known to sleep within trees and logs. Despite their stout bodies, pangolins are surprisingly fast runners and proficient swimmers. Their main form of movement, however, is an awkward-looking shuffle on the outer edges of their four feet, stopping regularly to raise themselves onto their hind limbs to sniff the air. Due to their poor eyesight, pangolins rely on their sense of smell to guide them towards their prey and navigate their territories. To maintain their territories, pangolins scent mark using secretions from a gland, as well as their urine and faeces. It is thought that this also helps individuals to recognise each other and assert their sexual dominance.

Pangolin species are relatively slow reproducers, with gestation periods that vary between 65 days and 150 days, after which they give birth to a single offspring, only mating once per year. Two or three offspring have been reported in some Asian species, although this has never been documented in African species. Baby pangolins, also known as ‘pangopups’ are born with soft, pale scales which only begin to harden after their second day of life, and the female keeps them in a burrow for a month after their birth. Pangopups are fed on milk produced by the female for up to four months, although they will supplement their diet with ants and termites after a month. When foraging outside of the burrow the pangopup attaches itself to the scales at the base of the female’s tail, and the female protectively wraps its body around its pangopup while it is asleep or if it is threatened. Pangolins usually reach sexual maturity after a year of life.

Pangolins are nocturnal and very secretive, therefore they are notoriously difficult to study and many aspects of their life history remain a mystery. The lifespan of wild pangolins is unknown.

Habitat requirements

Thick-tailed pangolin on forest floor

Pangolins can be found in many habitats, including brush, grassland, tropical forests and agricultural areas, always close to a good and constant supply of ants and termites. Some pangolins, such as the three-cusped pangolin, lead a mainly arboreal lifestyle, while others, including the ground pangolin, are wholly terrestrial and spend their entire lives on the ground and in subterranean areas of their habitats. Pangolins who live in the trees have semi-prehensile tails that are used to assist them while climbing.

Threats to pangolins

Chinese pangolin trap at the entrance to the burrow
Snare at the entrance to a Sunda pangolin burrow

The main threat to pangolins is the illegal wildlife trade and they are widely believed to be the most illegally trafficked mammals in the world. In China and Vietnam pangolin meat is considered to be a delicacy and is eaten as an exotic meat in numerous restaurants and as bushmeat in Africa.

The insatiable appetite for pangolin meat and parts has led scientists to believe that a pangolin is poached every five minutes, which is entirely unsustainable and has resulted in every pangolin species being listed as either Vulnerable (three-cusped, black-bellied, giant ground and ground), Endangered (thick-tailed and Philippine) or Critically Endangered (Sunda and Chinese) on the IUCN Red List. Over the past decade, it has been estimated that over a million pangolins have been illegally traded, despite a commercial ban for wild-caught individuals in Asia, which is more than tigers, elephants and rhinos put together. When this commercial ban was introduced, poachers turned to Africa to supply the industry and tonnes of pangolins are thought to be transported along the same trade routes as elephant ivory and rhino horn. The burgeoning middle class in China are the main consumers of pangolin. The population currently stands at around 300 million individuals but is set to increase to 550 million over the next 15 years, which could increase demand for pangolins unless effective conservation measures are implemented.

Farming pangolins to supply the trade is not an option due to them being extremely difficult to keep in captivity and success stories are extremely rare. Their specialised diet and habitat requirements mean that most captive individuals do not survive for very long, which also rules out captive breeding and reintroduction as a conservation method. Due to their elusive and secretive nature, pangolins are very difficult to study and therefore research into their life history is limited. This factor restricts the development of sufficient conservation techniques and the implementation of an effective management plan.

As well as being eaten as exotic meat, pangolin scales and foetuses are used in African bush and Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM). Pangolin scales are believed to cure ailments including asthma, cancer and psoriasis, as well as improving blood circulation and increasing the amount of milk a lactating female can produce, although there is no evidence to support these claims. Scientific tests have shown that pangolin scales make no difference to these ailments whatsoever and are just as ineffective as rhino horn, which is another popular ingredient in TCM that is driving rhinos to extinction.

The illegal wildlife trade is the third largest illegal trade in the world and is valued at around £14.3 billion ($19 billion). Pangolins are one of the most expensive animals found in the illegal wildlife trade and as they are sold by weight, poachers regularly pump pangolins full of a porridge-like substance which increases their weight, and therefore the price a buyer will pay. Once only hunted for subsistence, pangolins are now so in demand that it is thought that they are most frequently hunted for the commercial market as they can attract such a high price. As the demand increases and the supply dwindles, the price of a pangolin is set to increase even more.

Both Asian and African pangolins have lost vast areas of habitat due to conversion for agriculture, especially for palm oil plantations, and extensive urbanisation throughout their range has led to many individuals being involved in collisions with traffic, which are mostly fatal. Habitat loss is placing additional pressure on the diminishing pangolin populations that remain, and even those found in protected areas are at risk from illegal forestry activities.

Pangolin conservation

Save Vietnam's Wildlife staff loading seized pangolins onto a truck for transportation to rescue centre

Urgent action is required to save all eight pangolin species from extinction as their populations are decreasing at an alarming and unsustainable rate in all range states.

All eight pangolin species are listed on Appendix II of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES), which means that international trade in all species is strictly regulated, and since 2000 international trade in the Chinese, thick-tailed and Sunda pangolin has been banned, although trade is known to still occur despite this. It has been recommended that all pangolin species are upgraded to CITES Appendix I which would ban all international trade and would recognise that the wild population of pangolins is being detrimentally affected by trade. Sale of pangolin parts would then only ever be allowed in extenuating circumstances.

Similarly to rhino horn and elephant ivory, mapping trade routes is extremely difficult as the trade is run by criminal syndicates who have numerous techniques to ensure that their activities are disguised from the authorities. By collecting data about seizures at airports and shipping ports, conservationists are slowly understanding trade routes and techniques but more research into this needs to be done to try and slow it. Over recent years there has been an increase in seizures of whole pangolins and their parts, although it is unclear as to whether this is due to increasing demand or if wildlife and transport officials are becoming better at catching wildlife traffickers. Although this trend shows increased enforcement, many conservationists believe that there is still a lack of enforcement and punishments are not severe enough, which does not act as a real deterrent for poachers. Provision of the correct resources, tools and training for rangers that will help them to halt poaching and trade in pangolins is desperately needed to discourage illegal wildlife trade.

Awareness and education are extremely important in the fight to save pangolins from extinction. Many people who consume pangolins are not aware that they are endangered and are always wild-caught, therefore communicating information about the trade is crucial. Reducing demand would directly influence trade by decreasing the price that buyers are willing to pay for pangolins and reduce the amount of shops and restaurants that would stock pangolin products. Unfortunately, pangolins are seen as low-priority by many of the governments throughout their range as they are so unknown and are not deemed to be as charismatic as other species within their habitats, who get most of the limelight.

Community-based conservation projects which prevent local people from poaching and get them involved with protecting pangolins in their local area would decrease poaching levels and encourage people to act as guardians for their wildlife. As the popularity of pangolins increases through education and awareness initiatives, more tourists will visit areas where pangolins live to see them, which will raise revenue and encourage local people to see the value of conserving their local wildlife. Educating local people about the pangolin’s role as pest controllers and ecosystem engineers and helping them to see how vital the role of the pangolin is within their ecosystem would help to raise their profile and hopefully gain even more support for their conservation.

Awareness in non-range states is also extremely important as many countries, especially in Asia, are transport routes for pangolin parts and public pressure on the government would help towards the development of legislation and discussions on how to stop illegal wildlife parts from entering their country. Spreading awareness through the media is crucial to get more people to care about pangolins and want to get involved with their conservation.

Developing an effective management and conservation plan for pangolins is problematic due to their elusive, secretive lifestyle which makes them extremely difficult to study. Subsequently, husbandry guidelines are extremely difficult to develop as natural behaviour and habitat requirements cannot be determined and therefore cannot be applied to enclosures. The ability to provide care for captive individuals is crucial to ensure that individuals that have been seized from poachers can be reintroduced to the wild, and to attempt to create a genetically diverse captive population that can breed and act as an insurance population should a species become extinct in the wild. Thousands of live pangolins are seized from traders every year and while some can be successfully reintroduced, many do not survive as wildlife officers cannot provide adequate care. It is therefore crucial that husbandry and care guidelines are developed as soon as possible. Many of the range states in which pangolins are found have very limited financial resources which are already stretched, and therefore providing adequate shelter for rescued pangolins is not high on their agenda and the responsibility for this is left to conservation organisations, who also struggle financially.

As keeping pangolins in captivity is so difficult, it is vital that the remaining habitats where pangolins are found are legally protected to prevent any further destruction. Ensuring that the remaining habitat is not fragmented is also extremely important and conservationists are looking into linking fragmented habitat using wildlife corridors, which would allow pangolins to move between areas and keep the population genetically healthy and prevent inbreeding issues. Reforesting and protecting degraded areas could also create suitable habitats for pangolins which could sustain and safeguard them.

How can I help?

  • Many people don’t even know what a pangolin is! Share our pangolin film on your social media to make people aware of them and their plight.
  • Ask your family and friends if they know what a pangolin is and if they don’t - teach them!
  • Prevent the illegal trade of pangolins by refusing to consume any pangolin products.
  • If you know your friends or family members consume pangolin meat or products, make them aware of their endangered status and ask them to spread awareness.
  • Celebrate World Pangolin Day on the third Saturday of February.
  • Boycott shops and restaurants that sell products containing pangolin.
  • Pressure companies that are known to transport pangolin meat and scales and ask them to stop.
  • Read our pangolin species profiles and become a pangolin expert, then share your new-found knowledge with others.

Find out more about pangolins and their conservation

Glossary

Arboreal
An animal which lives or spends a large amount of time in trees
Bushmeat
The meat derived from wildlife of African forests, or ‘bush’.
Convergent evolution
When unrelated organisms develop a similar appearance due to their similar way of life.
Ecosystem engineers
Organisms that create, modify or maintain habitats by causing physical changes to them which directly or indirectly alter the availability of resources to other species within the ecosystem.
Extant
Still in existence
Gestation
The state of being pregnant; the period from conception to birth
Gland
An organ that makes and secretes substances used by the body.
Insectivores
Animals that feed primarily on insects.
Keratin
A group of fibrous proteins that form the basis of hair, nails, wool etc in animals.
Larvae
Immature stage in an animal’s lifecycle, after it hatches from an egg and before it changes into the adult form. Larvae are typically very different in appearance to adults; they are able to feed and move around but are usually unable to reproduce
Prehensile
Capable of grasping
Sexually dimorphic
When males and females of the same species differ in appearance.
Subterranean
Living underground, in caves or groundwater.
Terrestrial
Ground-dwelling.