Ground pangolin (Smutsia temminckii)

Also known as: Cape pangolin, scaly anteater, South African pangolin, Temminck’s ground pangolin
Synonyms: Manis temminckii
French: Pangolin De Temminck, Pangolin Terrestre Du Cap
Spanish: Pangolín Del Cabo
GenusSmutsia (1)
SizeHead-body length: 34 – 61 cm (2)
Tail length: 31 – 50 cm (2)
Weight7 – 18 kg (2)

Classified as Least Concern (LC) on the IUCN Red List (1), and listed on Appendix II of CITES (3).

The unusual ground pangolin belongs to a group of eight armour-plated species, (the order Pholidota), distinguished from other mammals by their protective layer of horny scales (4). Its long, streamlined body; small, cone-shaped head; and thick tail are covered with overlapping yellow-brown scales, composed of fused hairs and shaped like artichoke leaves. The ground pangolin’s underside and inner surfaces of the limbs are the only parts of the body not protected by scales, but when threatened, the pangolin can roll into an almost impregnable ball, wrapping its muscular tail around the body and leaving only sharp scales exposed to predators (5). The ground pangolin’s strong forelegs bear long, robust claws, capable of digging in the ground and tearing apart ant and termite nests (5). A specialist in eating ants and termites, the toothless ground pangolin possesses many other adaptations for this diet including a long, conical tongue used to lap up prey; an acute sense of smell to locate its food (5); and thick eyelids to protect its eyes from ant bites (6)

Occurs in eastern and southern Africa, from north-eastern Chad and Sudan, south to South Africa (5).

The ground pangolin inhabits savanna and woodland, avoiding desert or forest. They are surprisingly capable swimmers and are often found living near a water source (5).

The ground pangolin is a solitary and nocturnal animal, although in winter it will often venture out in the late afternoon (6). It normally walks slowly with its head swaying from side to side and its tail dragging along the ground, although it is also capable of running and walking on two legs (5). When searching for food it frequently walks on its hindlegs, sniffing continually for prey with its nose close to the ground and its forelegs and tail touching the ground occasionally for balance (6). When an ant or termite nest is located, the ground pangolin uses its front claws to break open a hole into which it inserts its long tongue and feeds on the ants within. The tongue can extend an incredible 10 to 15 centimetres beyond the pangolin’s lips, and is retracted into a pouch in the throat when not in use (5). It also digs shallow holes in the ground, carefully moving the soil as its tongue flicks in and out of the ant nest’s passages (2). Any sand that is swallowed along with the ants helps to grind the soft food in the pangolin’s muscular stomach (6).

While capable of digging their own burrows, ground pangolins prefer to live in burrows dug by anteaters or spring hares where they sleep curled up (2) (5). While scales do not provide good insulation or protection from external parasites, they are an effective shield against scratches from sharp rocks in the walls of a burrow, or against a predator (5). The ground pangolin’s mating season is thought to be from late summer to early autumn, with birthing in winter after a gestation period of around 139 days long. Females give birth to one young per year which they carry clinging to their back (5).

While the ground pangolin is widespread and in some parts common, in other areas, such as South Africa and Malawi, it is rare and threatened, believed to be largely due to hunting. The unique scales that have evolved to protect the ground pangolin from predators are now contributing to its decline, as its scales are used in some areas in love charms, and there is a belief in east Africa that burning the scales keeps lions away (5). The ground pangolin is also hunted for its flesh, which is eaten, and for many other parts that are used in traditional medicine (2) (5). In East Africa the ground pangolin is even known as Bwana Mganga, meaning ‘Mr Doctor’, which refers to the fact that all its body parts are thought to have some healing property (6). In Zimbabwe, to see a pangolin is a good omen and it is traditional to catch one and present it to superiors to be eaten (5). In addition, ground pangolins are vulnerable to being burned in bush fires and electrocuted by electric fences (2).

The ground pangolin is protected by law in many of its range countries and occurs in several protected areas, such as Serengeti National Park in Tanzania, a World Heritage Site (5) (7). Yet a conflict remains between these laws and the traditions of native peoples (5); an issue that must be addressed to ensure a bright future for the ground pangolin.

To support the efforts of conservationists working to protect pangolins see:

To find out more about conservation of African wildlife visit:

Authenticated (12/08/2009) by Chao, Jung-Tai, Ph.D. Chair of the former IUCN Pangolin Specialist Group and Senior Scientist, Taiwan Forestry Research Institute.

  1. IUCN Red List (December, 2009)