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Did you know: Pangolins Are The Most Trafficked Mammals In The World 🎥

Updated: Oct 23, 2020

So, what is a pangolin? Often thought to be reptiles, pangolins are actually mammals and the only mammal that is fully covered in scales. Those scales are needed to protect themselves from predators in the wild. If under threat, a pangolin will immediately curl into a tight ball and will use their sharp-scaled tails to defend themselves. They can also release a stinky fluid from a gland at the base of their tails as a defense mechanism.

An adult Philippine Pangolin and her pup photographed in the forests of Palawan by Gregg Yan - Wikimedia Commons

Pangolins are solitary and active mostly at night. The only time they spend time together is when they mate and bear young. Their babies are born with soft scales that harden after two days, but they will ride on their mother’s tail until they are weaned at about three months.

The majority live on the ground, but for example the black-bellied pangolin also climbs trees, and the pangolin sizes range from a large housecat to more than 1.20 metre (4 feet) long. They are largely covered in scales made of keratin - the same material as human fingernails - which results in the nickname "scaly anteater."

Similar to anteaters, pangolins have long snouts and even longer tongues, which they use to lap up ants and termites they excavate from mounds with their powerful front claws. They’re able to close their noses and ears to keep ants out when they’re eating. Though they look and act a lot like anteaters and armadillos, pangolins are more closely related to bears, cats, and dogs. (For more information:

Sadly, this shy and harmless pangolin has an enemy it cannot withstand - humans! Meanwhile increasingly well known for one reason: it is believed to be the world’s most trafficked non-human mammal. Tens of thousands of pangolins are poached every year, killed for their scales for use in traditional Chinese medicine and for their meat, a delicacy among some “ultra-wealthy” people in China and Vietnam.

There are eight species of pangolins. Four are found in Asia, the indian-, philippine-, sunda- and the chinese pangolin; they are listed by the IUCN (International Union for Conservation of Nature) as critically endangered. The four African species, the ground pangolin, giant, white-bellied, and black-bellied are listed as vulnerable.

All species face declining populations because of illegal trade. In 2016, the 186 countries party to the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES), the treaty that regulates the international wildlife trade, voted to ban the commercial trade in pangolins.

As many as 36,000 pangolins killed to produce single shipment of scales, conservationists say

Right photo: Smuggled pangolin meat seized at Miami International airport, 2017 - Photo flickr credit USFWS (U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service)

Unfortunately the illegal trade is still booming. Although pangolin scales, like rhino horn, have no proven medicinal value, yet they are used in traditional Chinese medicine to help with ailments ranging from lactation difficulties to arthritis. The scales typically dried and ground up into powder, which may be turned into a pill.

For many years, the Asian species were the primary target of poachers and traffickers. But now that their numbers have been depleted, smugglers are increasingly turning to African pangolins. In two record-breaking seizures in the space of a week in April 2019, Singapore seized a 14.2-ton shipment and a 14-ton shipment of pangolin scales - from an estimated 72,000 pangolins - coming from Nigeria.

🎥 Pangolins: The most trafficked mammal you’ve never heard of - National Geographic (4:35)

Not only brings the research for this blog tears to my eyes on how animals are treated by humans, it is yet another reminder of the danger illegal wildlife trade brings to humanity as we experience worldwide the spread of the latest virus Covid-19, which has changed our world we live in completely! We see all the media is focused on effects rather than causes, in particular the global implications for public health and economies. But the important fact is also to unravel the timeline of the pandemic and categorically determine its initial cause.

An article from “The Conversation” from March 2020 states: “What we do know to date is that the epicentre of the disease was in the Chinese city of Wuhan, an important hub in the lucrative trade in wildlife – both legal and illegal. The outbreak is believed to have originated in a market, in which a variety of animal-derived products and meats are widely available, including peacocks, porcupines, bats and rats. It’s also a market where regulatory and welfare standards are rudimentary at best.

Some of this trade is legal under Chinese domestic law but the existence of a parallel illegal trade – often within the very same market or stall – allows some traders to launder illicit wildlife products into the system. This situation is very difficult to regulate and control.

We are also reasonably certain that the spill-over event involved the crossover of the virus from animals to humans, similar to the situation with previous contagions like the Ebola and SARs viruses. In each of these cases, the existence of large, unsanitary and poorly-regulated wildlife markets provided an ideal environment for diseases to cross over between species. In a country like China, where wildlife consumption is so deeply embedded in culture, such contamination can, and did, spread rapidly.”

“The more we hunt wildlife, the more we come in contact with new environments and the more we increase the likelihood of us being exposed to these viruses,” explained Peter Ben Embarek of the World Health Organization’s International Food Safety Authorities Network. “It’s clear that poaching and hunting endangered species has to stop. It’s totally unacceptable. I think everybody in all authorities of the world are in agreement with that.”

Easier said than done! Hopefully the Covid-19 pandemic has finally made us recognise that the illegal wildlife trade poses an intolerable danger to public health. An increased effort to stop the illegal wildlife-trade worldwide is the only option to protect our health in the future. But given humans have short memories, once the danger has passed public concern will turn to the next big problem. Covid-19 clearly represents an exceptional opportunity to combat the wildlife trade, and ensure that animal-borne diseases do not mutate and cross over to humans. But only time will tell whether this opportunity will be taken or put off once again until the emergence of the next pandemic poses an even bigger global threat.

To all our readers around the world, we wish you well in those times of uncertainty. Stay safe and healthy! From all of us at



National Geographic, 2020 (viewed 05.04.2020)

World Wildlife Fund (viewed 05.04.2020)


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