The critically endangered pangolin faces many challenges. Due to their incredibly elusive nature, they are poorly studied, and plummeting numbers in Asia mean great danger for Africa’s four native species. By Arnold Ras 

Have you ever encountered a wild pangolin? Count yourself lucky. These wacky and wonderful creatures are so rarely seen that little is known about them. To make things worse, they’re under serious threat from poachers.

In celebration of World Pangolin Day on 18 February, Wild chatted to Prof. Ray Jansen, chairman of the African Pangolin Working Group, to find out more about our pangolins.

The pangolin is a mammal covered in scales. What are some of the unique biological attributes of this animal?

It’s the only mammal completely covered in hard, overlapping keratin scales. It’s also edentate, in other words, it’s got no teeth and a tongue that’s pretty much as long as its body. This sticky tongue is stored in a cavity behind its stomach at the rear end of the pangolin. This is unique for any kind of mammal. Pangolins suckle their young and have one pup every one to two years – their recruitment into the population is very low. African pangolins feed only on ants and termites. No other insects.

Some astounding facts about the pangolin?

They have their own home ranges and the males are quite territorial. There are four species in Africa: the Temminck’s ground pangolin here in South Africa, the giant ground pangolin in central Africa, and the two tree-dwelling pangolins – the black-bellied and white-bellied pangolin. So, there are four species in Africa and four in Asia, and that’s the problem. Poachers have literally decimated the Asian ones, now they are coming for the African ones.

Temmincks ground pangoli-African Pangolin Working Group-Darren Pietersen-2

Temminck’s ground pangolin. Pictures by Darren Pietersen

Why has it become the most trafficked mammal on earth?

Pretty much the same reason the rhino is under threat. Pangolin scales are used in a number of Asian remedies and it’s considered a very important ingredient. Some of these remedies are thousands of years old. Pangolins are thus highly, highly sourced and the four Asian species are now very difficult to obtain. The African species are by far much easier and probably a lot cheaper to get hold of. This is the overriding factor responsible for the huge amount of trade in pangolins from Africa to Asia.

Now, if I have look at the figures from 2016, just under 19 tons of scales from Africa were intercepted in Asia. And I am not including the trade that comes from Vietnam and Malaysia. It’s February and so far we have reported 14 tons of seized scales: on 9 January, 6 tons in Tanzania; on 18 January, 5 tons in Cameroon; and on 2 February, 3 tons in Bangkok.

In South Africa we had a number of arrests last year. We managed to seize 11 pangolins that were successfully rehabilitated and released back into the wild.

Just to be in the presence of this unique animal is humbling to say the least.
– Prof. Ray Jansen

Temmincks ground pangoli-African Pangolin Working Group-Darren Pietersen-3

Because they are so elusive, scientists struggle to determine exactly how many pangolins remain in the wild…

I can’t give you a number. They are incredibly shy, mostly nocturnal and they don’t make any noise at all. To determine estimated population sizes, we would have to use transmitters in order to study the home ranges of individuals and then extrapolate the home ranges into suitable habitat to get a viable number. I believe the South African population is quite healthy, and populations in Namibia, Botswana, Zimbabwe, Zambia, Malawi and Mozambique are still okay.

We had local extinctions is Zululand quite some time ago. The Zulu people, much like the Shona people of Zimbabwe, consider the pangolin one of the highest gifts you can bestow upon a chief. As soon as they come across a pangolin, it’s given as a gift to an elder for instance. Other than that, the Kruger National Park has a healthy population with the Kalahari probably home to the largest number of pangolins in South Africa.

What does the African Pangolin Working Group do to protect Africa’s four native species?

Our primary role is applied research. We also write articles for magazines and newspapers, do television interviews, conduct public lectures and talks at schools, and we have research programmes in Cameroon, Ghana, Nigeria and South Africa. Because these animals are so poorly studied, the first thing we need to know is more about their biology, ecology and physiology. If we don’t know that, we can’t apply protective measures.

The next big step is getting into the school systems. One of our board members just gave up his job and bought a bus. He is now going to live in this bus and drive from rural school to rural school to educate and inform. School kids are a priority on our agenda. The African Pangolin Working Group is all about networking and public awareness.

What are some of the challenges related to studying and protecting pangolins?

To find the animal is probably the biggest challenge. Because they are so elusive, one has to spend days, weeks and months in the field to just try and locate and fit them with transmitters. Another challenge is the design of an electric fence that does not kill pangolins. Electric fences are the biggest threat to SA’s Temminck’s ground pangolins. They walk bipedally on their hind legs, just like we do, and when their soft bellies hit the warning wire, they curl into a defensive ball – right around the wire. The pulse comes through every five seconds until the animal’s dead. We have to design an electric fence that’s either a lot higher, or a lot lower so that the animal can climb over or step under.

Most nature lovers dream of seeing a pangolin. What has been your most prized sighting?

When we were doing research on pangolins in the Kalahari, I was very fortunate to follow these animals around for a number of days. Just to be in the presence of this unique animal is humbling to say the least. I also visited the Tikki Hywood Trust in Zimbabwe, which works closely with government officials to rehabilitate pangolins. There we walked with foraging pangolins one afternoon and I am very lucky to have a library of lovely photos.

Report your sightings

Have you recently spotted or photographed a pangolin? Remember to never publish the animal’s location on any social media platform or elsewhere on the internet.

Visit the Africa Pangolin Working Group’s “REPORT A SIGHTING” page and share some details about your pangolin sighting. Your confidential information could aid researchers to better conserve this precious species.

Stay up to date with the latest pangolin news on the Africa Pangolin Working Group’s Facebook page.