Pangolins are under threat.
Once thriving in the wild, today all eight species of pangolin are rapidly decreasing in number. Threatened by illegal wildlife trade and poaching, we’re working to save pangolins and boost their population – to keep them a part of a vibrant and balanced world of wildlife and biodiversity.
What do pangolins look like?
Pangolins are covered with scales which is a rare trait in mammals. With 46-47 vertebrae, the long-tailed species of pangolin boasts the highest number of vertebrae among mammals. They have long, sticky tongues that are longer than their bodies, and have evolved to be perfectly adapted for eating ants and termites. They have long, powerful claws and are known to curl into a ball to evade predators. Unfortunately, this is ineffective against human hunters who can just pick them up.
The Sunda pangolin has scales that are predominantly dark brown in colour, though they are frequently found with ‘white’ scales on their tails; the reason for this characteristic is unknown.
Pangolins have been described as 'walking pinecones', 'artichokes with tails' and 'modern-day dinosaurs'. While at first glance you might presume they are related to other ant-eating species, scientists now know one of their closest relatives is actually the mongoose.
They’re the only truly scaly mammal
Pangolins are the only type of mammal with scales covering their bodies from head to tail. There are eight pangolin species worldwide, with four in Asia and four in Africa. Asian pangolins have hair growing between their scales, while African pangolins do not.
Pangolin scales are a useful defence
Pangolin scales are made of keratin, the same material as human nails. If threatened, pangolins roll up into an armoured ball to protect themselves. The word pangolin comes from the Malay name, pëngulin, which roughly translates as ‘roller’.
Pangolins are thought to be the world’s most trafficked animal
Sadly, pangolin scales and meat are extremely valuable in the illegal wildlife trade, as they’re used in traditional medicine and luxury dining in some parts of the world. This means that pangolin poaching is a huge threat to these animals’ survival, with recent data suggesting that one pangolin is taken from the wild every three minutes.
With all pangolin species now under threat, and three Asian pangolins listed as critically endangered, tackling pangolin poaching is a key part of our conservation work in Asia and our wider fight to protect species worldwide.
Pangolin diet is pretty specialised…
Given that they have no teeth in their small, tapered heads, you might wonder: what do pangolins eat? In fact, they are specialist feeders on ants, termites and insect larvae. An adult pangolin can eat as many as 70 million insects a year.
…And so are their feeding adaptations
Pangolins use their powerful front claws to dig into insect nests, while pangolin tongues are super-long and sticky – perfect for lapping up ants and termites. Pangolins can even close their ears and nostrils completely to keep insects out! A pangolin stomach often contains small stones that help to grind down their food, since these animals can’t chew.
Pangolins are great climbers
Some pangolin species spend most or all of their lives on the ground, such as Temminck’s pangolin, also known as the ground pangolin or Cape pangolin. But others, including Africa’s black-bellied and white-bellied pangolins and Asia’s Sunda pangolin, are agile climbers that spend lots of their time in the trees, using their semi-prehensile (grasping) tails to help them grip branches. Pangolins are also capable swimmers.
Pangolins are mostly active at night
Pangolins are predominantly nocturnal, although the black-bellied pangolin is active by day. Most pangolin species dig burrows to shelter in during the daytime, although tree-dwelling species, such as the Sunda pangolin of Southeast Asia, may sleep in tree hollows or forks.
Baby pangolins hitch a ride on mum
All pangolin species are thought to be largely solitary creatures, except when coming together to breed. Don’t be confused by their scales: female pangolins do not lay eggs, but give birth to live young (most often, a single infant).
A baby pangolin is born with soft scales that start to harden soon after birth. It will stay with its mother for three to four months, hitching a ride on the base of her tail while she forages. If startled, the baby pangolin will roll into a ball, and its mother will roll up around it.
There’s no such thing as a typical pangolin habitat
Pangolin habitat varies from tropical and swamp forests, savannahs and grasslands to cultivated areas such as farmland and oil palm plantations – as long as there is a supply of ants or termites to eat. But with human development encroaching on many areas where pangolin species live, habitat loss is an additional threat to these animals.
Pangolin vs armadillo : not so alike after all
People often wonder if pangolin and armadillo species are related – after all, they’re both armoured mammals that love eating termites! But pangolins and armadillos evolved in different parts of the world, and are not considered close relations within the mammal kingdom. Armadillos are found in the Americas, and are distant cousins of anteaters and sloths, while pangolins live in Asia and Africa, and the mongoose is thought to be their closest relative.
Pangolins help shape their ecosystems
Thanks to their appetite for insects, pangolins act as a control on ant and termite numbers in their ecosystems. Their digging helps to turn and aerate the soil, while abandoned pangolin burrows often provide shelter for other species.
Where do pangolins live?
Pangolins are native to reigions across both Asia and Africa. Interestingly, species native to Asia have hair between their scales whereas those in Africa do not. Normally very shy creatures, Indian pangolins have been known to wander into villages and use their impressive claws to dig through concrete and into houses. Chinese pangolins spend their winter months buried in warm underground burrows near termite nests. The Cape pangolin is known to live in burrows already dug by aardvarks and aardwolves, and across Africa, the most prevalent sub-species of pangolin, is the tree pangolin. The Phillippine pangolin inhabits four islands across the region including Palawan and Culion.
What threats do pangolins face?
Pangolins are now the world's most illega'ly traded wild mammal with ore than one million having been poached over the past decade. That's more than rhinos, elephants and tigers combined. In particular, the Sunda pangolin has the deeply undesirable status of the mammal most frequently found in illicit trade.
This threat from poachers is largely driven by increasing demand for pangolin products from the Far East, particularly China and Vietnam. But at ZSL we're working to create practical routes to recovery for these incredible species.