Monday, July 28, 2014

The Day I Met a Pangolin

Within minutes of learning there was such a creature I was touching one!  I was visiting a game reserve in South Africa, when our ranger got a call on his walkie-talkie.  Another group out and about late that afternoon had spotted what he described as the most difficult of African creatures to find.  (My further research has confirmed that it really is an unusual sighting.)

Our guide drove our Land Rover like a bat out of hell to reach it before it disappeared into the evening gloom.

And there it was.  It looked like pinecone lying in the grass, but as soon as the ranger touched it, it rolled into a ball.

Pangolins are found throughout the tropical regions of Asia and Africa.  There are eight species left; a number of others are already extinct.

Like you and me, the pangolin is a mammal.  Its name derives from a Malay word meaning “it rolls up,” which is what this fascinating critter does when it is threatened.  It tucks its face under its tail and makes itself safe from say a lion who might want to take a bite.

The pangolin’s body is covered with large, overlapping scales that form a nearly impenetrable armor once it is in a tight ball.  The scales are keratin, like your fingernails, but they are thick and overlap very like the leaves of an artichoke.  They’re sharp, further discouraging any animal with big teeth and yum on its mind.

Further defense comes in the form of a nasty-smelling oil, a little like the spray of a skunk.  But the pangolin doesn’t spray the stuff—probably because it doesn’t need to.  It’s pretty well defended as it is.  Watch this to see its defenses in action:

(You can turn the sound down if the voice of the TV announcer has the same effect on you that it had on me—nails on the blackboard.)

Pangolins are insectivores.  They sport long claws to help them dig their meals out of termite burrows and anthills.   They go about at night and find their food with a keen sense of smell.  Like a lot of anteaters they have long tongues (up to 16 inches, 40 cm) for scooping the goodies.  Some live in trees; others dig burrows, like groundhog tunnels.  They don’t look it, but they are good swimmers.  Their front claws are large and ungainly for walking, so on land they move on their hind legs, using their tails for extra balance.

They are solitary and meet up only to mate, typically but once a year, when the males mark their territory with feces and urine.  Unlikely as it seems given the nature of the come on, the females seek out the males, mate, and leave.  If two males are approached by the same female, they fight it out, using their tails as clubs, to get the girl.  African pangolins give birth to one offspring at a time.  These are all behaviors often found in endangered species.   Pangolins were labeled as such in 2010.

Sad to say, despite the international ban, there is growing illegal trafficking in pangolin scales.   It does not surprise me that most of the illegal sales are to China.  Here is a quote from a web magazine for massage therapists. 

“In traditional Chinese medicine, pangolin scales are associated with the Liver and Stomach meridians, and are considered to have salty and slightly cold properties. The scales of the pangolin are used in conjunction with herbs to treat a host of conditions, including masses in the abdomen, amenorrhea, rheumatism, arthralgia, postpartum galactostasis, skin and external diseases, and scrofula (tuberculosis of lymph nodes, especially in the neck). Pangolin scales are also used to invigorate the blood and promote menstruation, promote lactation, reduce swelling and dispel pus.
How much pangolin scale should I take?
The typical dose of pangolin scale is between 3 and 10 grams, taken as a decoction or 1-1.5 grams when ground into powder for oral administration.
What forms of pangolin scales are available?
Pangolin scales typically come dried and whole, and can be ground into a powder. They are extremely difficult to obtain.”

You can go here to find out more about the trafficking:

Before you go, turn up your computer sound and take a look at this brief National Geographic film on pangolin basics, where you will see one in action—something we safari-goers never got to experience that day.  We stayed with the creature only a few minutes, took our pictures and retreated, leaving it to go its way in safety.


Annamaria - Monday


  1. I could have used that defense mechanism this weekend:).

  2. Wonderful post, Annamaria! And you are right about how rare the sightings are, lucky devil! As you know, I've lived in Africa most of my life and spend as much time as I can in the bushveld, but I've never seen one in the wild.

  3. Jeff, I sympathize. An aspect of being out going is that we can become prey of predators. At times I have felt like a molting lobster and wished for a harder shell. On the othe hand, we wouldn't want the pangolin's lifestyle!

  4. Michael, I am extraordinarily lucky. On the other end of the spectrum, there is this fact. My favorite animal growing up was the zebra. On my first trip (to South Africa and Botswana), in ten days in the bush, I saw exactly one--on my last day at sunset. How strange is that?

  5. Good god. I know the Chinese culture has contributed a GREAT deal throughout history, but I am SO beyond sick and tired of southeast Asia's 'taste' for animal parts. Will education EVER catch up?

    That aside, thanks for the great intro to the pangolin, and it sounds like a great trip!

    1. My sentiments exactly, EvKa. Searching the internet for pangolin images yielded some pretty awful sights. I do NOT recommend looking at them. That aside, I am glad you enjoyed meeting the strange critter. I sure did.

  6. Like an interesting lecture at the Museum of Natural History. A great break for me right now. I agree with the comment about animal parts. I remember a documentary about killing bears for their liver, which was supposed to be an aphrodisiac. I won't comment on murdering people to sell their organs. Well, I guess I just did. Are there steps being taken to preserve the panguin?

  7. I meant a pangolin. It's been that kind of day!

    1. I agree with you, Barbara. Protecting people is more important than protecting animals. Also, the poachers are often very poor and paid only a tiny fraction of the price charged to the final buyer. All of which makes protecting animals or people a very tricky business.

  8. Really... really scary... I used to slay copperheads with nothing more than a small hatchet... in the woods of Lake Prince, near Suffolk, Va, but nowadays I'd faint totally dead if I had to now! You are one brave lady! Thelma Straw in non-varmint Upper East Side Manhattan... ahem, I sure hope so! But, hey, ya never know!!!