If asked to name the most hunted animal on the planet you might guess whale, elephant, lion, rhino, shark, cheetah or the Chinese Salamander perhaps? And yes, while hunted in droves for various reasons including what some define as sport, for status or imagined medicinal cures, the aforementioned animals are high up on the most hunted list but they do not top it. The number one spot is reserved for the humble and lesser-known Pangolin.
How to recognise a Pangolin
Affectionately described by Amy Attenborough as, “Somewhere between a dinosaur, an artichoke and a small dog with giant toenails”, the Pangolin is ruthlessly hunted and trafficked primarily for its large armour-like scales. Like rhino horn, the Pangolin’s scales are believed by some to treat various conditions from increasing lactation, draining pus, stabilising blood pressure and curing everything from palsy to cancer. The fact is, none of the Pangolin’s curious-looking body parts, including their delightfully large ‘toenails’ have any curative qualities.
Pangolin means “something that rolls up” and for good reason. When threatened by its main adversaries – which apart from humans are big cats – it curls into itself. Thus shielded, even a lion’s ferocious fangs cannot pierce its impenetrable armour. Unfortunately, curling into a foetal position also renders it vulnerable to being easily picked up and cuddled or stolen.
Sometimes when threatened, the Pangolin lashes out with its tail, the scales on which can nick an enemy’s skin. Alternatively, much like a skunk, they are also known to give off a nasty-smelling gas from glands near the anus.
Ear and nose specialists
Having appalling eyesight, the Pangolin relies on a well-developed sense of smell and hearing to locate dining areas in the form of termite mounds and ant hills. Using its enormous claws and strong forearms it roots out in excess of 70 million insects per year. In fact, their sense of smell is so good that the Pangolin is able to close its ears and nostrils when feeding to keep out the hordes of insects while feeding.
Retractable built-in cutlery
When not required to lap up insects, its long and sticky tongue retracts into a sheath located in its chest. Interestingly, the tongue is attached almost as far back as its pelvis and last set of ribs and, in some of the smaller Pangolin species, the tongue is longer than their total body length. Being toothless, their food is ground by keratinous scales inside their robust stomach. They ingest minute pebbles and soil during mealtimes to aid the digestive process.
The dating game
Pangolins are believed to live a relatively short life of twenty years or so and dating is rudimentary but effective. Males attract females by urinating to mark their territory and then leave it to the ladies to come and find them. Other than mating for procreation the Pangolin is a loner. Females give birth to one offspring at a time. Children get carted about on Mum’s tail and are weaned at three months.
Among David Attenborough’s favourites
Of the eight species of Pangolin, four reside in Africa. Of the African varieties, one resides in South Africa, surprising and delighting people fortunate enough to spot them. Their reptilian appearance belies the fact that they are in fact mammals; the only mammals covered in scales. Predating humans, the earliest Pangolin fossils indicate that they probably arrived shortly after the extinction of the dinosaur. David Attenborough famously said that if he were to select ten animals to save from extinction the Pangolin (more specifically the Sunda Pangolin from Asia) would be one. While relatively unknown and not grabbing centre stage, these ancient precious creatures are deserving of our protection.