Pangolins are rare, secretive, slow-moving, solitary and nocturnal scaly mammals – the world’s only! They have a tapered body shape, varying in size from 30-100cm, with males being larger than their female counterparts. Covering their body and tail are sharp, overlapping keratin scales – the same material as human fingernails. Although pangolins share similar characteristics with Xenarthrans (anteaters, armadillos and sloths), they are actually more closely related to to the order Carnivora (cats, dogs, bears, etc.) [1]. They are also insectivorous and it has been estimated that an adult pangolin can consume an excess of 70 million insects per year!

Pangolin’ originates from the Malay word ‘penggulung’ which means ‘rolling ball’. As a defensive posture, pangolins curl up into a tight sphere, projecting their sharp-edged scales.

There are eight extant species. Four species are native to Asia and include the Chinese Pangolin (Manis pentadactyla), Indian Pangolin (Manis crassicaudata), Malayan Pangolin (Manis javanica) and Palawan Pangolin (Manis culionensis).

The other four species are native to Africa and include the Cape Pangolin (Manis temmincki), Giant Pangolin (Manis gigantea), Long-tailed or Black-bellied Pangolin (Manis tetradactyla) and African White-bellied Pangolin (Manis tricuspis). Asian species are distinguished from African species by the presence of 3-4 hairs at the tip of each scale.

Asia is a driving force of the illegal wildlife trade, and every year billions of wildlife products are traded to meet client demands for clothing, food, ornaments, pets, traditional medicine, and trophies.

Pangolins are one of the most intensely trafficked wild mammals in the world and it is estimated that every 5 minutes a pangolin is poached from the wild. Intense hunting supplies the illegal wildlife trade and involves the exchange or sale of live pangolins, their meat, scales, and various other body parts.

Consequently, all eight species of pangolin are threatened with extinction and have been elevated to CITIES (Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species) Appendix I, prohibiting their international and commercial trade.

The main cause of overexploitation is poaching for local and international trade, motivated by increasing wealth and market demand for pangolins in China for traditional medicine. Since 2000, it is estimated that more than 1 million pangolins have been poached from the wild and trafficked globally, largely destined for China and Vietnam for medicinal purposes. Scales are most valued in traditional medicine and comprised 41% of the trade between 2000 and 2013 across Asia. Their parts are believed to have healing properties, treating therapeutic, psychological and spiritual conditions.

The trade of pangolins and their parts is so ingrained in traditional culture and exploitation is not only a conservation concern but a societal issue. A multitude of organisations are working to conserve pangolins by supporting law enforcement efforts; researching the demand for pangolin products; working with local communities and indigenous people; rescuing, rehabilitating and releasing trade confiscated animals; and by improving current knowledge and understating of these species to inform conservation strategies.

That aside, wildlife in Asia is increasingly threatened by commercial hunting; global climate change; habitat loss, degradation and fragmentation; and introduced species.

At chXout we provide DNA barcoding for citizen scientists. If you have an ornament or jewellery you suspect to be carved from bone, contact us today and we may be able extract DNA for species identification.

[1] https://doi.org/10.1016/j.theriogenology.2010.07.010

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