Saturday, February 21 was World Pangolin Day. On this day, pangolin advocates join together to increase awareness about these cute, special and rare mammals. Pangolin numbers in Asia are rapidly declining and pangolin trafficking is a serious problem in Africa. There are four species in Africa and four in Asia.
Pangolins live predominantly on a diet of insects, including ants, termites, bee larvae, flies, worms, earthworms, and crickets. This diet makes them important in pest control. One pangolin can eat more than 70 million insects per year. But dietary preferences of such specificity make it extremely difficult to maintain pangolins in captivity, as they often reject unfamiliar insects or develop illness when fed different food.
Pangolins curl up into a tight ball when threatened, which makes them virtually impenetrable. The name ‘pangolin’ even comes from a Malay term that means ‘rolled up.’ But this rolled up state sadly also makes pangolins easy for poachers to pick up and carry.
Approximately 8,125 pangolins were confiscated in 2013, in 49 instances of illegal trade in 13 countries. It is believed that seizure and confiscations or illegally acquired pangolins represents only 10 to 20 percent of the actual illegal trade volume. With this in mind, it is estimated that 40,625 to 81,250 pangolins were killed in 2013 alone.
The greatest demand for pangolins is in Traditional Chinese Medicine, as pangolin scales are erroneously believed to be capable of curing numerous ailments. Illegal trade in South Asia has now rendered pangolins the most trafficked animal on earth, with some estimates claiming that sales now account for up to 20 per cent of the entire wildlife black market. Pangolin flesh is also considered to be a delicacy. In Vietnam, pangolins are frequently offered at restaurants catering to wealthy patrons who want to eat rare and endangered wildlife.
So where is the positive story of the environment? In response to this scaly mammal’s plight, many campaigns and organizations are rallying to raise awareness.
Save Pangolins, formerly called the Pangolins Conservation Support Initiative (PCSI), was founded in 2007 by members of the Emerging Wildlife Conservation Leaders program, an international training and mentoring initiative that brings together emerging leaders in the wildlife conservation field for capacity building and intense training in campaign development and leadership skills. The organization operates SavePangolins.org, the first-ever website about pangolin conservation, which serves as a resource for the general public to learn about pangolins, the threats driving them towards extinction, and the groups and individuals working to conserve them. Save Pangolins also facilitates communication among pangolin conservation programs and researchers across the world, responds to reports of pangolins in crisis via social media, and helps coordinate rescue and rehabilitation which can include notifying wildlife authorities about illegal pangolin trafficking. The organization also works with IUCN-SSC Pangolin Specialist Group to advocate for the pangolin in a multitude of ways, including research and conservation.
Another organization, Wild Aid, is launching a new campaign to raise awareness by working with their network of over 100 media partners in China and Vietnam. Wild Aid will distribute campaign messages to millions of people for the purpose of reducing demand for pangolin products in Asia. The campaign will also aim to have all eight species uplisted to the CITES Appendix I listing which will effectively ban commercial trade.
In perhaps one of the greatest contributions in raising awareness, Sir David Attenborough chose the sunda pangolin as one of the 10 endangered animals he would most like to save from extinction and recounts saving a sunda pangolin from a cooking pot while filming in Asia early in his career. “It is one of the most endearing animals I have ever met,” said Sir David. “Huge numbers of them are illegally exported, mainly to China. In the last 15 years, over half of the population of sunda pangolins have disappeared.”
National Geographic highlights some natural behavior of pangolins in this video: