I bet you didn’t know we just celebrated an important holiday, did you? No, no, not Valentine’s Day, I’m talking about World Pangolin Day! On February 18th the world celebrated one of the coolest, most unique, and sadly one of the most threatened creatures on this weird planet of ours. Native to parts of Asia and Africa, the pangolin has been given the unfortunate title of being the most trafficked mammal in the world, driving them towards extinction if action isn’t taken soon.
Look at its little face! They’re pretty cute, huh? Pangolins are the only known mammals to have the keratin scales that cover their bodies, providing a type of armor that is actually made of the same material as our own fingernails. Despite being made up of the same material, the scales of the pangolin are extremely strong, able to resist the attacks of their natural predators. Like the more familiar and known armadillos, pangolins will roll up into balls and use their scales to protect themselves from the teeth and claws of creatures such as lions.
Since pangolins are similar to armadillos in their defense, the most natural connection would suggest that they’re related, but in all actuality, scientists aren’t sure what pangolins are related to. There’s no real close relative to the pangolin, they’re the only genus in their family, and their family is the only existing family in the order. They’re absolutely alone and unique in the world, which is what makes them so at risk for trafficking.
The scales of the pangolin, their greatest defense, are also their greatest threat. When faced with danger the pangolin will roll up into a ball. That’s great if the thing hunting you has claws and teeth and isn’t able to get to the soft flesh of the belly, it’s no so great if the thing hunting you has hands and can pick you up, take you home, and wait for you to unroll. Pangolins are hunted heavily in Africa for their meat, and their scales are often used in traditional Chinese medicines. The poor little critters roll up into balls to protect themselves and are, as a result, simply carried away from their homes.
Unlike many endangered animals, the hope of the pangolin’s future doesn’t lie with zoos. Pangolins have very specific diets and often stress heavily when they’re held in captivity. It can be nearly impossible to keep a pangolin healthy once they’re taken from the wild and, unfortunately, even those that are rescued from illegal trafficking often die anyways. Because of this, the survival of the species lies in ending the poaching that threatens it so heavily.
Interestingly, and perhaps the best news for these little creatures, is that China itself has begun to advocate for the pangolin and now discourages the hunting and use of pangolin scales in traditional medicines. The idea that pangolin scales help with maladies has been condemned. While this new advocate isn’t a guarantee for the pangolin’s protection, it certainly does give it an edge that it was otherwise lacking, and if we’re honest then the pangolin will need every backer it can get in order to survive the threat of ignorance.