Pangolin conservation

Temminck’s ground pangolin. Picture: Scott and Judy Hurd

Pangolins are unique in that they are the world’s only scaly mammals. Their scales are made of keratin, which is the same protein found in rhino horn and human fingernails.

These super-strong scales overlap like artichoke leaves, and when attacked pangolins roll up in a ball to protect themselves. However, this doesn't help them defend against poachers, who can just pick them up, put them in a sack and carry them off. 

Pangolins have long, powerful claws that are perfect for ripping open ant nests and super long sticky tongues to pick up ants and termites. Their tongues are attached near to their pelvis and are sheathed in a chest cavity.

There are eight species in total, four of which occur in Asia and four in Africa. All eight species of pangolin are listed as threatened with extinction on the IUCN Red List.

Why are pangolins under threat?

Pangolins are declining throughout their range due to increasing demand for their meat, which is eaten as a luxury dish in some places, and their scales and other body parts, which are used in many traditional medicines.

This is driving unsustainable levels of poaching and illegal trade. As a result, pangolins are now widely regarded to be the world’s most trafficked wild mammals with more than one million estimated to have been snatched from the wild in the past decade. This is despite a commercial trade ban for wild-caught pangolins in Asia that has been in place since 2000. 

As the populations of the four Asian pangolin species plummet, traders are now looking to Africa to meet demand.


How is ZSL protecting pangolins?

ZSL is championing the conservation of pangolins through engaging with on-the-ground conservationists, key decision makers, the media and conservation organisations around the world.

  • Pangolin Conservation Initiative

ZSL launched a two-year Pangolin Conservation Initiative, supported by Fondation Segré and Save Our Species, in June 2015. The project is helping to protect four species of pangolin through supporting anti-poaching patrols and law enforcement at key sites in Cameroon and Thailand, and by initiating work to reduce demand for pangolin products in China.

  • Protecting pangolins in Central Africa

ZSL has created a cooperative programme with the US Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) to develop a team of early-career Central African and Asian conservation practitioners from varied disciplines to champion the conservation of pangolins in Central Africa. Find out more about the MENTOR POP Fellowship Programme.

  • Pangolins on the EDGE

The Chinese and Sunda pangolins are ranked 91st and 92nd respectively, out of more than 5,000 species, on the Evolutionarily Distinct and Globally Endangered (EDGE) mammals list due to their combinations of high evolutionary distinctiveness and critically endangered threat status. 

ZSL has supported two EDGE Fellows (in-country conservationists) to lead projects on the Chinese and Sunda pangolins in Nepal and Vietnam, and is currently supporting an EDGE Fellow focusing on the Sunda pangolin in Thailand as part of the Pangolin Conservation Initiative. 

Visit www.edgeofexistence.org for more information.

  • IUCN SSC Pangolin Specialist Group

The IUCN SSC (Species Survival Commission) Pangolin Specialist Group was re-established in 2012. The aim of the group is to co-ordinate and lead efforts to study pangolins and the threats they face, and devise conservation solutions to ensure the long-term survival of pangolins in Africa and Asia. 

For more information visit the official IUCN SSC Pangolin Specialist Group website at www.pangolinsg.org

  • ZSL at CITES

ZSL supported proposals to safeguard pangolins and uplist all eight species to Appendix I at the 17th meeting of the Conference of the Parties to the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES CoP 17). The Parties to CITES voted to support all of the proposals at the Oct 2016 meeting, meaning that there is now an international trade ban in place for pangolins and more support for a suite of other actions that will help to secure their future.

Find out more about ZSL at CITES

More information

Project Information

Key Species

  • Chinese pangolin
  • Sunda pangolin
  • Philippine pangolin
  • Indian pangolin
  • White-bellied pangolin
  • Black-bellied pangolin
  • Giant pangolin
  • Temminck’s pangolin

People Involved

  • Carly Waterman is ZSL’s Pangolin Technical Specialist, the Programme Officer for the IUCN SSC Pangolin Specialist Group and the IUCN Red List Co-ordinator for pangolins 
  • Nisha Owen is manager of ZSL’s EDGE of Existence programme
  • Chris Ransom – North and West Africa Programme Manager
  • Paul de Ornellas – Assistant PM for N&W Africa
  • Withoon Sodsai is undertaking an EDGE Fellowship focusing on the Sunda pangolin in Thailand
  • Ambika Khatiwada has completed an EDGE Fellowship focusing on the Chinese pangolin in Nepal
  • Tran Quang Phuong has completed an EDGE Fellowship focusing on the Sunda pangolin in Vietnam

Partners and Sponsors

ZSL has supported pangolin projects undertaken by the National Trust for Nature Conservation (NTNC) in Nepal and Save Vietnam’s Wildlife (formerly Carnivore and Pangolin Conservation Program), and is the institutional host of the IUCN SSC Pangolin Specialist Group, which collaborates with multiple organisations worldwide.

ZSL’s pangolin projects are generously supported by Fondation Segré, Save Our Species, Mohamed bin Zayed Species Conservation Fund, Ocean Park Conservation Foundation, Hong Kong, WildInvest and US Fish and Wildlife Service. 

How You Can Help

Pangolins have the dubious honour of being the world’s most trafficked wild mammals, with more than a million believed to have been snatched from the wild in the last decade. Here are some easy ways to help save the pangolin. 

Spread the word – tell your friends, family and colleagues all about these amazing creatures.  

Donate to champion pangolins and receive a special pangolin pack with fun facts, badges, stickers and a project guide. 

DONATE NOW

Don’t buy pangolins or pangolin products – this includes live pangolins, pangolin meat, wine, scales and leather. Don’t be tempted to purchase these items – by doing so you are fuelling the illegal trade. 

Report wildlife crime - If you see pangolins or other wildlife being illegally sold in restaurants or other business establishments, or on social media, contact your local authorities.

Species of pangolins

There are eight species of pangolin, and all are listed as threatened with extinction. 

Four pangolin species live in Asia: the Chinese Pangolin, the Sunda or Malayan Pangolin, the Philippine Pangolin, and the Indian or Thick-tailed Pangolin. There are four African species which are the Cape or Temminck’s ground Pangolin, the Giant ground or Giant Pangolin, the Tree or African White-bellied Pangolin, and the Long-tailed or Black-bellied Pangolin. 

Asian pangolins:

Chinese Pangolin (Manis pentadactyla) – Critically Endangered
Sunda or Malayan Pangolin (Manis javanica) – Critically Endangered
Philippine Pangolin (Manis culionensis) – Endangered
Indian or Thick-tailed Pangolin (Manis crassicaudata) – Endangered

African pangolins:

Cape or Temminck’s ground Pangolin (Smutsia temminckii) – Vulnerable
Giant ground Pangolin (Smutsia gigantea) – Vulnerable
Tree or African White-bellied Pangolin (Phataginus tricuspis) – Vulnerable
Long-tailed or Black-bellied Pangolin (Uromanis tetradactyla) – Vulnerable

Sunda pangolin by Dan Challender
Sunda pangolin

Pangolin facts:

  • Also known as ‘scaly anteaters’ pangolins are the world’s only truly scaly mammals.
  • The word "pangolin" comes from the Malay word "pengguling", meaning "something that rolls up".
  • Pangolins have been described variously as ‘walking pinecones’, ‘artichokes with tails’ and looking like ‘modern day dinosaurs’.
  • Although scientists used to think pangolins are closely related to other ant-eating species (e.g. anteaters and armadillos) we now know that their closest relatives are the carnivores.
  • Pangolins are adapted for eating ants and termites. 
  • Their long, sticky tongues are longer than their bodies.
  • They have powerful claws for burrowing and ripping apart ant and termite nests.
  • Their defence mechanism is to curl up into a ball, scales out, which is virtually impenetrable – an excellent defence against their natural predators (lions, hyenas, leopards). Sadly, this defence is ineffective against poachers.
  • The main threat to pangolins is from poaching and illegal trade, driven largely by increasing demand for pangolin products from the Far East, particularly China and Vietnam.
  • Pangolins are now the world’s most illegally traded wild mammal – more than one million poached over the past decade (more than rhinos, elephants, and tigers combined).
  • A pangolin is poached every 5 minutes.
  • Asian pangolins have hair between their scales.
  • Although normally shy, Indian pangolins are reported to wander into villages and have been known to dig through concrete and into houses.
  • The Philippine pangolin is endemic to the Philippines, inhabiting four islands including Palawan and Culion. 
  • The Sunda pangolin has a long history of being traded internationally. In Asia it has the undesirable status as the mammal most frequently found in illicit trade.
  • Sunda pangolin scales are predominately dark brown in colour, though they are frequently found with ‘white’ scales on their tails; the reason for this characteristic is unknown.
  • Chinese pangolins spend the winter months in deep burrows that maintain stable temperatures and are excavated near termite nests, which supply a source of food.
  • The tree pangolin is the most frequently encountered pangolin in Africa.
  • The giant ground pangolin is the largest extant species of pangolin.
  • It is thought the giant ground pangolin is now extinct in Rwanda.
  • The Cape pangolin often uses the burrows of other animals including aardvarks and aardwolves.
  • With 46-47 vertebrae the long-tailed pangolin holds the record for the highest number of vertebrae among mammals. 

Conservation News 

White-bellied pangolin (c) Tim Wacher, ZSL
White-bellied pangolin

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