Pangolins: The world’s most trafficked mammal

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Article by Kotie Geldenhuys
Selected photos provided by Prof Ray Jansen

The gentle, dragon-like pangolin, searching for juicy termites, is totally unaware of the approaching danger. Out of nowhere two greedy hands grab the scaly body, put the terrified pangolin in a bag and carry it to a hut where the next stage of its ordeal will take place …

Servamus spoke to Prof Ray Jansen, the founder of the Non-Profit Organisation (NPO) the African Pangolin Working Group (APWG), who told us that pangolins evolved from a common “cat-like” ancestor in the super continent Pangea around 85 million years ago and were walking with dinosaurs. Sadly, all eight pangolin species are now threatened with extinction primarily through persecution by humans.

Pangolins have a unique appearance and are the only mammals covered in hundreds of scales which protect them from predators such as lions and leopards. Sadly, these scales cannot protect them from one predator: HUMANS. Their only means of defence is to curl into a ball, which makes them even more vulnerable to poachers who can easily pick them up. This shy, scaly, ant-eating creature is the world’s most trafficked mammal which has been hunted and exploited for their meat and scales, which are used in traditional medicine in some regions of Africa and Asia. As the most illegally traded mammal on earth, pangolins are under severe threat of extinction. More than one million pangolins have been trafficked over a ten-year period, with 2019 data indicating that a pangolin is poached every three minutes (World Wildlife Organisation, 2023). This means that before you reach the end of this article, a pangolin would have been poached from the wild.

Species and conservation status
There are eight pangolin species of which four are found in Asia namely the Indian pangolin (Manis crassicaudata), Philippine pangolin (Manis culionensis), Sunda pangolin (Manis javanica) and the Chinese pangolin (Manis pentadactyla). The other four species, namely the Black-bellied pangolin (Phataginus tetradactyla), White-bellied pangolin (Phataginus tricuspis), Giant pangolin (Smutsia gigantea) and Temminck’s Ground pangolin (Smutsia temminckii), also known as the Cape pangolin, are found in Africa (World Wildlife Organisation, 2023). The latter is the only species found in Southern Africa. Prof Jansen told Servamus that Temminck’s Ground pangolin are mostly brought into South Africa from neighbouring countries such as Zimbabwe and Mozambique. They are however also sourced locally in Limpopo, North West, Mpumalanga and the Northern Cape.


[This is only an extract of an article that is published in Servamus: September 2023. This article is available for purchase.]

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