Pangolin

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STANDARDS

NGSS: Core Idea: LS4.D

CCSS: Reading Informational Text: 1

TEKS: 6.12D, 7.11A, 8.2E, E.9E

Plight of the Pangolin

How conservationists are trying to save the world’s most trafficked mammal from extinction

AS YOU READ, THINK ABOUT the reasons people might illegally remove animals from the wild. 

As night fell, Harriet Nimmo and an armed guard walked quietly through the brush near Kruger National Park in South Africa. They were protecting a pangolin named Aura as she fed on ants. Aura was rescued from poachers and brought to Rhino Revolution, where Nimmo works as a conservationist. Her organization cares for threatened animals, like Aura, until they’re healthy enough to return to the wild.

Night fell near Kruger National Park in South Africa. Harriet Nimmo and an armed guard walked quietly through the brush. They were protecting a pangolin named Aura as she ate ants. Aura was rescued from poachers and brought to Rhino Revolution. Nimmo works there as a conservationist. Her organization cares for threatened animals, like Aura. When they’re healthy enough, they return to the wild.

With their long snouts and tails, pangolins resemble anteaters. But unlike anteaters, which have fur, pangolins’ bodies are covered head-to-tail with overlapping protective scales. In fact, it’s this armor that hunters are after. Pangolin scales are prized in parts of Asia for use in traditional medicines. Pangolin meat is also considered a delicacy. (Note: As Science World went to press, pangolins were suspected as a potential source of the new coronavirus discovered in China late last year. For more, see Outbreak Predictor.)

Experts estimate that millions of pangolins are captured or killed and sold each year, making them the most trafficked, or illegally traded, mammal in the world. That’s why Aura and other rescued pangolins need a security detail following them just to go out for a snack. Conservation groups like Rhino Revolution go to these extreme lengths to save the few remaining pangolins—before they’re gone for good.

With their long noses and tails, pangolins look like anteaters. But they don’t have fur like anteaters. Instead, pangolins are covered with scales from head to tail. The scales overlap to protect them. And this armor is what hunters are after. Pangolin scales are wanted in parts of Asia for use in traditional medicines. Pangolin meat is also considered a luxury. (At press time, pangolins were suspected as a possible source of a new coronavirus. The deadly virus was discovered in China late last year.) As a result, the animals have been nearly wiped out.

Experts figure that millions of pangolins are captured or killed and sold each year. They’re the most trafficked (illegally traded) mammal in the world. That’s why Aura and other rescued pangolins need guards just to go out for a snack. Conservation groups like Rhino Revolution are willing to take these extreme measures. They want to save the last few pangolins, before they’re gone for good. 

RESCUE EFFORTS

When pangolins arrive at Rhino Revolution’s treatment center, they’re often close to dying. Poachers cram the animals into cages and deprive them of food and water. Veterinary nurses must care for the rescued pangolins around the clock. At first, they’re given liquid food through a tube connected to their stomachs. Once they gain strength, they’re encouraged to forage for themselves outdoors—followed closely by rescue workers.

Pangolins feed exclusively on ants and termites and can eat more than 1 kilogram (2.2 pounds) of insects per night. Pangolins are uniquely adapted for finding these bugs. With their keen sense of smell, they sniff out ant and termite nests. Then they dig into them with their long, sharp claws. While pangolins eat, their thick scales prevent the swarming insects from biting them. Pangolins have no teeth—because they don’t need them. Their sticky tongues, which are nearly as long as their bodies, allow them to slurp up their food without chewing (see What Makes Pangolins Unique).

Pangolins are often close to dying when they get to Rhino Revolution’s treatment center. Poachers stuff the animals into cages without food and water. Veterinary nurses must care for the rescued pangolins around the clock. At first, they’re given liquid food. It flows through a tube into their stomachs. When they get stronger, they can find food for themselves outdoors. Rescue workers follow them closely.

Pangolins feed only on ants and termites. They can eat more than 1 kilogram (2.2 pounds) of insects each night. Pangolins are adapted in unique ways for finding these bugs. With their strong sense of smell, they sniff out ant and termite nests. Then they dig into them with their long, sharp claws. Their thick scales protect them while they eat. The scales stop the swarming insects from biting them. Pangolins have no teeth, because they don’t need them. Their sticky tongues are nearly as long as their bodies. That allows them to slurp up their food without chewing (see What Makes Pangolins Unique).

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TAKING CARE: A worker at Rhino Revolution feeds milk to a young orphaned pangolin.

Pangolins are mostly nocturnal. They normally burrow underground or hide in tree branches during the day and come out at night to feed. That’s why conservationists take rescued pangolins on evening strolls. Their patrol lasts until the animals eat their fill, which can be an all-night job. “Feeding walks last five to six hours,” says Ray Jansen, a zoologist with the African Pangolin Working Group, which also rescues pangolins from illegal traffickers. “Rehabilitating pangolins is hard work.”

And rescuers’ efforts don’t end when the animals are back in the wild. Before being released, rescuers outfit each pangolin with a tracking device. It allows conservationists to keep tabs on the animals and come to their aid if needed. The timid, harmless creatures are easy pickings for poachers because they don’t fight back when threatened. Instead, they curl up in an armored ball. This adaptation protects pangolins from predators that want to eat them, such as hyenas and lions. But it makes it easy for poachers to simply collect rolled-up pangolins and toss them into sacks.

Pangolins are mostly nocturnal. During the day, they normally burrow underground or hide in tree branches. They come out at night to feed. That’s why conservationists take rescued pangolins on evening walks. Their patrol lasts until the animals are full. That can be an all-night job. “Feeding walks last five to six hours,” says Ray Jansen. He’s a zoologist with the African Pangolin Working Group, which also rescues pangolins from illegal traffickers. “Rehabilitating pangolins is hard work.”

And rescuers’ work doesn’t end when the animals return to the wild. Rescuers put a tracking device on each pangolin before it’s released. That allows conservationists to check on the animals. Then they can help if needed. The shy, harmless creatures are easy pickings for poachers. That’s because they don’t fight back when threatened. Instead, they curl up in an armored ball. This adaptation protects pangolins from predators that want to eat them, like hyenas and lions. But it makes things easy for poachers. They just collect rolled-up pangolins and toss them into sacks.

BRENT STIRTON/REPORTAGE ARCHIVE/GETTY IMAGES

BACK HOME: Rehabilitated pangolins are released back into the wild, in Vietnam. Scientists are unsure how many pangolins exist in wild populations.

UNDER THREAT

Poaching is the greatest problem pangolins face. But as human populations grow, habitat loss is also pushing the creatures to the brink. Today, populations of all eight species of pangolins, found in parts of Africa and Asia, are dwindling fast (see Where Pangolins Roam).

In 2016, restrictions made the pangolin trade illegal worldwide. Yet the animals are still smuggled in large numbers into countries such as China and Vietnam via the black market. Although it’s against the law, upscale restaurants in those countries still serve pangolin, which is seen as a luxury. Poachers can sell the animals’ meat for as much as $600 per kilogram.

Poaching is the greatest problem for pangolins. But human populations are growing, and habitat loss is also pushing the creatures out. Eight species of pangolins are found in parts of Africa and Asia. Today, all eight are disappearing fast (see Where Pangolins Roam).

In 2016, new rules made the pangolin trade illegal worldwide. But the animals are still traded though the black market. Large numbers are smuggled into countries such as China and Vietnam. It’s against the law, but expensive restaurants in those countries still serve pangolin. The meat is seen as a luxury. Poachers can sell the animals’ meat for up to $600 per kilogram.

BRENT STIRTON/REPORTAGE ARCHIVE/GETTY IMAGES

SAFE SPACE: A pangolin is kept safe and cared for on a secret farm in the African nation of Zimbabwe. 

Pangolin scales—a kilogram of which can be worth more than $3,000—also continue to be ground up to make folk remedies in some Asian countries. The scales are made of keratin, the same material that makes up human hair and fingernails, which has no proven medicinal value. “If pangolins continue to be exploited at this rate, they will be extinct by 2040,” says Jansen.

A kilogram of pangolin scales can be worth more than $3,000. The scales are still ground up to make folk medicines in some Asian countries. The scales are made of keratin. That’s the same material in human hair and fingernails. It has no proven value as medicine. “If pangolins continue to be exploited at this rate, they will be extinct by 2040,” says Jansen.

IN NEED OF HELP

Campaigns are under way to inform people of pangolins’ plight and to help curb consumer demand. The attention on the animals has also encouraged governments to increase efforts to catch smugglers. “If pangolins are going to make it, it’s critical that we raise awareness about why they are special,” says the conservationist Nimmo.

Campaigns to help pangolins are under way. They inform people about pangolins’ problems and help to reduce consumer demand. This brings attention to the animals, and it has encouraged governments to try harder to catch smugglers. “If pangolins are going to make it, it’s critical that we raise awareness about why they are special,” says the conservationist Nimmo.

Conservation groups continue to do their part to save the unique creatures. Still, the number of pangolins rescued from poachers is small. Those that are saved offer researchers a chance to gain much-needed knowledge about these animals so they can learn how to better protect them. That’s why every rescued pangolin is important. “We have to treat every single one in our care as if it’s the last,” says Jansen.

Conservationists’ dedication to saving pangolins is what gave Aura a second lease on life. She spent three months in rehabilitation at Rhino Revolution. When she was healthy, she got her tracking device and her rescuers escorted her back to the wild. Workers continue to monitor Aura’s movements. “We spotted her in the bush a month after her release,” says Nimmo. “She looked good. She had put on lots of weight.

Conservation groups keep working to save the unique creatures. But not many pangolins are rescued from poachers. The rescued ones help researchers gain much-needed knowledge about these animals, so they can learn how to protect them better. That’s why every rescued pangolin is important. “We have to treat every single one in our care as if it’s the last,” says Jansen.

Conservationists’ hard work to save pangolins gave Aura a second chance. She spent three months in rehabilitation at Rhino Revolution. When she was healthy, she got her tracking device. Then her rescuers took her back to the wild. Workers continue to track Aura’s movements. “We spotted her in the bush a month after her release,” says Nimmo. “She looked good. She had put on lots of weight.” 

MOHD RASFAN/AFP/GETTY IMAGES

SMUGGLED SCALES: A large bag of pangolin scales is confiscated by authorities in Malaysia.

COMMUNICATING INFORMATION: How would you get the word out about the threats pangolins face? 

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