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Why is the Pangolin the world's most illegally trafficked mammal?

Nicola Shepherd By Nicola Shepherd
07 Jan 2020
South Africa -Tswalu - pangolin in the semi arid brush.jpg

The elusive pangolin is the world's most illegally trafficked mammal and on the 'most endangered animals list' but most people have never even heard of them! So on February 15th - World Pangolin Day 2020 - how can we all help to save this adorable little creature and where might you be able to see one in the wild?

Recent research has shown that as many as 2.7 million pangolins are killed every year in Africa alone, a shocking number for a species that was awarded the highest level of protection from CITIES in 2016. However 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 imperilled and trafficked mammals on the planet, gets little attention.

To highlight the plight of pangolins to the world, World Pangolin Day is now celebrated on the 3rd Saturday of February each year to raise awareness. 

Pangolins, also known as scaly anteaters, are unique, secretive, shy and nocturnal and very few people get to see them in the wild. They are highly endangered and incredibly special. They have hard scaly plates all over their body which they use to protect themselves; if threatened they roll into a ball for safety!


They are found across Africa and Asia and sadly, because they are small and vulnerable even when rolled up, their numbers are in severe decline due to human activities. In China, Vietnam and some other south-east Asian regions, the meat of a pangolin is eaten as a delicacy. In addition, the scales which cover their body and are made of keratin (the same material we grow on our fingernails!) are highly prized for traditional medicine.

This has led to many species of Asian pangolin being nearly ‘eaten to extinction’, as well as African pangolin species being targeted for the lucrative illegal trade in their meat and body parts. Across Africa pangolins are also hunted for bushmeat and sold in local markets.

Many large illegal shipments have been intercepted by authorities. The biggest so far was around 12.7 tonnes of pangolin scales which was seized in Singapore en route from Nigeria to Thailand. This heart-breaking discovery equates to around 36,000 endangered pangolins being needlessly hunted and killed.


To further threaten this species, in many regions their habitats are also under threat from encroaching human settlement leading to habitat change. Humans use pesticides on their crops which can kill wildlife, and electric fences may also kill pangolins if they come in to contact with them. Furthermore, in time of hardship such as drought, bushmeat species suffer more from hunting as crops fail (Southern Africa is currently suffering the worst drought in nearly 40 years).

What is being done to save the pangolin?

Although they are protected by international laws on trading from CITIES as well as many national laws, the illegal trade in pangolins and their body parts is very hard to tackle. There are eight species of pangolin in the world, four are Asian and four are African. All are threatened with extinction to some degree.


There are however many conservation charities across the world which are doing all they can to protect these adorable creatures. Some of note include the Tikki Hywood Foundation in Zimbabwe, which takes in pangolins which have been confiscated from the illegal trade. Often they require medical attention and the Foundation rehabilitates them, training rangers to watch over them, and eventually re-releases them to safe wild habitats.

In 2019 African Parks also made special provision to protect pangolins and partnered with the Tikki Hywood Foundation. The latter will provide essential expertise and training on protection and rehabilitation of pangolins which will assist African Parks to protect pangolin populations within their varied protected parks.


Where can you see pangolin in the wild?

Having personally seen pangolins a few times in the wilds of southern Africa, I can say that they are without doubt simply delightful. There are four countries in southern Africa where one can see them, NamibiaSouthern South Africa (especially around Tswalu), Botswana and Zimbabwe where I have seen them whilst working in safari camps.

The most common species to see here is the Cape pangolin or Temminck’s pangolin, which is what I have seen in this region. Other species also live in central and western Africa and I have seen black-bellied pangolin in the Dzanga-Sangha region of the Central African Republic.


Wendy Panaino, MSc, PhD is a researcher based in southern South Africa and she is studying the pangolins in the semi-arid Tswalu Kalahari Reserve and how they may react to the changes of habitat, prey availability and temperature that will come about with climate change.

To do this she has tagged several individuals so that she can track them to observe their behaviour and activity patterns, their diet and record their body temperatures.


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 very rare to see) and one can follow individuals at a good distance so as not to disturb them in any way. One may also be able to observe them feeding, and Dr Panaino has observed them eating different species of ants than what she expected. One of her most recent and completely surprises observations was, as she said:


 "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."



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

In the Central African Republic, adventurous travellers can have a truly off-beat exploration of this final-frontier region and at the same time, witness and contribute to the wonderful Sangha Pangolin Project at Sangha Lodge, run by Rod and Tamar Cassidy.


Sangha Lodge is located in a 640km2 private concession bordering the pristine Dzanga Sangha National Park, a UNESCO world heritage site. Here guests can explore the National Park, which has year-round bais where all the forest wildlife come to drink.

On my visit here, (where we travelled to Sangha Lodge on a wonderful boat journey down the river from Odzala National Park!), I spent time in the elephant hide and witnessed large herds of forest-dwelling elephant coming down to the bais.


These elephants are different from those I have seen elsewhere on the continent and exhibit some interesting and differing behaviours. We also were able to see colobus monkeys around the lodge. This area of forest is rich in biodiversity and many species of primates, other mammals and birds can be seen here, this truly is a wildlife lover’s paradise.

The Lodge has, with the assistance of generous donors, set up a pangolin research project and rehabilitation centre with a small veterinary clinic. Pangolins which are rescued from poachers can be brought here to be treated and regain their health.


To date, 97 pangolins have been rescued from the bushmeat market, cared for until they were healthy enough, and re-released to their natural habitats. Additionally three young black-bellied pangolins have been raised to adulthood and had a ‘soft release’ into the Lodge’s pangalorium, a safe forested area surrounding the lodge where they can be rehabilitated under the watchful eyes of the local Ba’aka trackers who have been employed to assist in the program.

This allows the pangolins to be protected from poachers but also to be monitored and collect information about their ecology to further the understanding of pangolin behaviour, feeding habits and ranges.


Both of these projects are aiming to learn more about various pangolin species in Africa, to protect them before it is too late. It is possible to support these directly by visiting on a conservation-focussed safari to Africa, or by making a donation. If you would like any more information please do feel free to get in touch.



Images kindly provided courtesy of Tikki Hywood Foundation, Tswalu Private Game Reserve, Stuart Lewis (forest elephants at bai)


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