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Pangolins are so adorable, so why are they on the most endangered list?

Kate Pirie By Kate Pirie
19 Feb 2018
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Most people don’t know what a pangolin is, so while the illegal poaching of elephants, rhinos and tigers regularly makes headlines, this rare, odd creature, which is quickly becoming one of the most imperiled and trafficked mammals on the planet, gets little love.

To put that right, pangolin fans have designated February, as the month in which the annual World Pangolin Day is celebrated.


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Pangolins are unique, they are secretive, shy and nocturnal and very few people get to see them in the wild. They are highly endangered and therefore special. Pangolins live in Africa and Asia and their numbers are in severe decline through poaching for the traditional medicine trade, yet these creatures are delightful and having seen them a few times in the wilds or southern Africa, they are without doubt simply wonderfu.

Four countries in southern Africa where one can see them are Namibia, Southern South Africa, especially around Tswalu and in Botswana and Zimbabwe where I have seen them whilst working in safari camps. They also live in central and west Africa.


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There are eight species of pangolin and the ones I have seen are the Cape Pangolin or Temminck’s Pangolin.

Pangolins are scaly anteaters (myrmecophagous), totally harmless and nocturnal with hard scaly plates covering them and at the first sign of danger they roll up into a ball for safety - this works well in almost all cases, except when it comes to humans and the edges of the hard plates (made of keratin) are sharp so hopefully inflicting damage to poachers, though because they are small and still vulnerable, their numbers across the world are in steep decline.   Their species name means ‘to roll up’.


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Wendy Panaino, MSc, PhD is a researcher based in southern South Africa and she is studying the pangolins, what a wonderful thing to do. She will happily take you out at night to find some of the pangolin that she has tagged and follows with radio signals and telemetry equipment. Spending time out in this gorgeous private reserve with its red Kalahari sands is a privilege as not only do they have pangolin but other endangered species too.

Wendy has observed mothers with babies on their backs (itself even more rare to see) and gets to follow individuals at a good distance so as not to disturb the in any way, and also seeing them eating different species of ants than what she expected. One of her most recent and completely surprises observations was as she said:


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‘’Suddenly I am stopped in my tracks by a sound unfamiliar to my ears. Is that a jackal lapping water?” I ask myself, confused. But the sound is coming from the pangolin, so I edge closer to investigate. To my utter surprise, it is indeed the pangolin drinking water. The recent rains had deposited water into pockets at the bases of some black thorn bushes, and this pangolin took the opportunity to lap some of it up, something I had NEVER seen before.’’

There is so much more to learn about the Pangolins, before it is too late. For example the Chinese and Sunda pangolins are the most endangered species with their numbers already halved in the past 15 years. The rate for pangolin scales has reached over $200 per kilogram and this is just keratin – just like human nails – there is absolutely no medicinal or curative properties whatsoever. They are also hunted for bush meat as the Chinese and Vietnamese consider them a delicacy. It is estimated that over 100 000 pangolins are lost in one year alone.


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Wendy loves to share her experiences with everyone who visits. Some of the pangolins that she studies have become very used to being followed which is fabulous, whilst others take a bit of time with good, ethical practice to become used to visitors following them.  Her main studies are to investigate how pangolins might cope with changes to the environment (Tswalu being semi-arid), due to climate change and ‘‘investigating the body temperature and activity patterns of free-living ground pangolins in response to climatic conditions and prey availability.’’

She loves to share her observations, observations, behaviours and stories so I highly recommend that one spends time with these wonderful creatures getting an amazing insight beyond the normal safari.


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