The Mysterious Pangolin

We celebrate the world’s most trafficked animal on World Pangolin Day. You are not alone if you have never seen a pangolin before or don’t know what it is. Even though it is the most trafficked animal, it is much less well-known than, for example, the rhino. Initiatives such as World Pangolin Day strive to change that and raise awareness of this particular animal’s plight.  

What is a Pangolin?

Pangolins are small, scaled mammals that feed on ants and termites. They have long, sharp claws to break open ant and termite mounds and a long tongue to lick up their meals. They play an essential role in the ecosystem by controlling ant and termite numbers. Additionally, by digging burrows, they turn over the soil and provide shelter for themselves and other species

Extremely rare and highly threatened

Since pangolins are small animals that usually only leave their burrows at night, most people have never seen them and don’t know what a pangolin is. This lack of awareness makes it difficult to protect these animals. And pangolins are in dire need of protection. All eight (possibly nine) pangolin species are listed as threatened on the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List. 

Since they have no teeth and are slow-moving, their only defence against predators is their thick scales. When threatened, they curl into a tight ball that even lions find tough to penetrate. Unfortunately, this tendency to roll into a ball makes it easy for poachers to catch them.


1. Poaching

Poaching is one of the biggest threats facing pangolins. Pangolins are poached and trafficked for their meat and scales. Most of the pangolins poached in Africa are transported to Asia, where their meat is considered a delicacy and their scales are believed to contain medicinal properties in Chinese traditional medicine. 

Sometimes, poachers are caught with live pangolins in their possession. These pangolins often need special veterinary care. The Johannesburg Wildlife Veterinary Hospital and Investec Rhino Lifeline developed a specialized pangolin veterinary ward where they treat and rehabilitate pangolins confiscated by law enforcement. The team at the hospital has an 80% success rate of treating, rehabilitating, and releasing pangolins back into the wild.  

2. Electric Fences

Electric fences are among the greatest threats to pangolins in South Africa, where poaching numbers are estimated to be lower than in other parts of the world. Up to 2,000 pangolins are electrocuted in South Africa each year. Since pangolins walk on their back legs, their exposed belly touches the lowest electric wire, triggering their defence mechanism of rolling into a ball, often resulting in the pangolin wrapping themselves even tighter around the electric wire. Several possible solutions have been investigated, including raising the lowest wire and smart energizers that automatically switch off individual wires to allow animals to escape.  

3. Climate Change

On top of the abovementioned threats, a new threat is on the horizon for these animals. Climate change models predict increases in air temperatures and sporadic rainfall events such as droughts, which can lead to reduced vegetation and, in turn, reduced ant and termite activity and food availability for pangolins.

Raising awareness through education

The future of pangolins in southern Africa is uncertain because of poaching, electric fences, climate change, and other threats such as habitat loss and road mortalities. Since most people have never seen a pangolin, raising awareness is vital. Increased public awareness is crucial for gaining corporate companies’ funding and increasing public pressure for harsh sentences for poachers. Environmental education and ecotourism have become essential components that can raise awareness about these remarkable creatures.

When educating the public, field guides are key role players. Ecotourism provides experiences for the public that can instil an appreciation for nature. Being out in the field regularly enables field guides to monitor the behaviour, movements, and distribution of endangered animals such as pangolins. Additionally, they can counter poaching attempts through regular patrols, reporting suspicious activity, and removing snares. EcoTraining trains guides to be custodians of wildlife, including endangered species like the pangolin.

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Real-life Sighting | A Pangolin in Makuleke

Not every day are you blessed with such a fantastic sighting. Instructor Sean Matthewson and our EcoTraining students came across this beauty recently at our Makuleke Camp.

About the Author:
Arista Botha

Arista Botha

Arista Botha is a freelance scientific writer with a background in research. She has a master’s in wildlife conservation physiology and several scientific publications. Arista worked as an associate research officer at the University of the Witwatersrand for five years while registered for a PhD. Instead of completing her PhD and pursuing an academic career, she became a writer. Her key areas of interest include wildlife, ecology, and the conservation of plants and animals.

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