Pangolins: The extraordinary mammal going extinct but nobody’s noticed
On Saturday 13th April, law officials inspecting a boat that had struck a coral reef in Tubbataha national marine, off Palawan Island in the Philippines, made a gruesome discovery. Within the hold were 400 crates, carrying over 10 tonnes total of illegal cargo. But it wasn’t drugs, weapons or any other smuggled riches one would usually expect to find on such a bust.
It was frozen animal corpses. Corpses of a bizarre wild animal that looks like a dog-sized cross between an anteater and a pine cone, and is in severe decline. And this find of thousands of dead individuals is all part of the reason why: An illegal but highly lucrative trade to the Asian black market.
The threatened creatures in question are Pangolins. A unique order of mammals, consisting of eight species spread across Africa, India & South-East Asia, they are the sort of animal that one could imagine in some biblical creation story, were near the end of the production line and made an already knackered God jumble together out of whatever he could find. Their nearest relatives are the members of the order Carnivoria – cats, dogs, bears and the like – but given that the pangolins diverged from them on the evolutionary path well over 70 million years ago, they truly are a primeval enigma within the animal kingdom.
For a start, they’re the world’s only scaled mammals. Sheaths of these scales cover most of the pangolin’s body, and are made of keratin, the same material as hair and fingernails – so to an extent, the pangolin’s ‘armour’ is a pumped-up and fortified fur coat (the scales are also one of the key factors behind its decline – we’ll come to that soon). A flexible body and long tail that in some species can total up to half its body length allow it to curl into a tight ball like a hedgehog when sleeping or threatened (and makes the pine cone resemblance seem even more noticeable), and a sticky tongue longer than its entire body is used to gouge out it’s favourite meal of termites make pangolins a complex and stunning feat of evolution. To see such an animal sings without words the sheer wonders that only nature can come up with.
However, the chance of these incredible animals going extinct within the century is distrurbingly possible. The pangolin shipment discovered on Palawan Island is only one of hundreds of raids in the last ten years – in the last three years alone, its been estimated that between
Around 90 to 180 thousand pangolins have been killed to fill the demand from China and South-East Asia. It has largely been the four Asian species, particularly the Sunda & Chinese pangolins, that have been hit hardest by the trade; but there are now reports of the other four species found in Africa being smuggled out of the country as their oriental cousins become scarcer.
If this cargo gets through undetected, the meat and scales become all manner of ‘delicacies’ and ‘natural medicines’ to a rising Asian middle class. The meat is seen as a luxurious meal with dubious health benefits – a common undoubtedly gruesome dish in circulation is pangolin foetus soup. Anything else, such as the blood and scales, is reduced to medicines for a wide range of ailments. It’s all based on superstition and with no evidence it works, let’s not forget that rhino horn are thought to cure cancer, tiger penis is a supposedly a strong aphrodisiac and elephant ivory is a highly prized possession.
Those three examples of illegal animal-based trades are all well known, the victims are large charismatic creatures one recognises from childhood, and subsequently they are more frequently reported in the press and awareness is greater. But if you asked the average person on the street what they knew of pangolins, they’re more likely to look at you strangely or think you’re quoting some bizarre passage of Lewis Carroll. And therein lies the problem – people just don’t know what pangolins are, let alone what threats they face.
A loss of pangolins from this world would be a tragedy beyond all accounts. For 70 million years these animals have lived and prospered virtually unchanged, so perfect in their biology, and completely unlike any other animal. Yet all of that can be brushed away in a heartbeat. If the pangolin still stays in the dark within the public consciousness, then this unacceptable fate seems inevitable. If this reasoning is not enough for some ignorant people in the world, who wouldn’t give a damn if it went extinct – of which there are sadly many – then you have to consider the after-effects the extinction of an essential piece of the ecological puzzle would have.
Eco-systems containing ant or termite colonies as part of their make-up all have a species that fills the niche of controlling these numerous insects (which always seems to have a long, sticky tongue for probing their nests, regardless of whether one ant-controller is related to the other). In the UK, our modest ant-hills serve as restaurants to the green woodpecker, whilst the gargantuan termite mounds of the South American savannahs fall into the stomach of the equally impressive giant anteater. Pangolins fill this niche wherever there be termite mounds in Africa and Asia, but what happenes when there aren’t any left to control the numbers of ants and termites? What’s going to happen when they eat through the crops of subsistence farmers, leaving their families starving, their income smaller, and the growing food shortage getting even larger, affecting both the farming countries themselves and the Western markets they export to?
So what can be done? Protecting habitat and poacher patrols is one, but as the elephant and rhino crises show, when big money is involved the criminals will just keep coming back – and anyway, the attentions of reserve security are generally more focused on the more noticeable megafauna than some small, nocturnal mammal very difficult to see. The insurance net of a captive population is out – the pangolin’s complex diet makes it difficult to maintain in captivity, and only a few zoos are just managing to get to grips with keeping them alive, let alone breeding. So it seems awareness really is the key, for if the public want it protected, then action in the low-budget and bureaucratic world of conservation is more likely to occur.
Thankfully, the word is starting to get out. In October 2011, Project Pangolin was set up to raise awareness of their plight largely through social media, and a year later the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) set up the Pangolin Specialist Group, in order to collaborate researchers and conservationists in developing techniques of conserving pangolins and directly combatting the illegal trade.
It’s still early days for these groups, but pangolins can’t afford to wait for help. The next ‘World Pangolin Day’, as set up by Project Pangolin, is on the 15th February 2014. So let’s push for pangolins to be up there with elephants and rhinos, tigers and whales and orangutans.
In the ‘charismatic megafauna’ that are going extinct because of us, yet won’t survive without our help, by that day. If you didn’t know what a pangolin was before reading this, I can only hope you go and spread the word of the pangolin’s plight to as many people as you can.
Because that’s the only card the pangolins have got.
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