What is a
Pangolin?

What is a
Pangolin?

Pangolins are among the most unique and intriguing animals in the natural world. They are also a misunderstood and mistreated animal that needs our help.

At Pangolin.Africa, we aim to spread knowledge and awareness about pangolins that can help build a community of people who want to save the pangolin.

Learn more about these charismatic creatures by reading the fascinating facts below. Then join us in protecting them and become a Pangolin Guardian.

Is a pangolin a mammal or a reptile?

Despite what many may think, pangolins are not reptiles but actually mammals.

Why do pangolins have scales?

Pangolins are the only mammals that are wholly covered in scales. Pangolins use these scales to protect themselves from predators such as leopards, hyenas and lions.

Where do pangolins live?

There are eight species of pangolins, and they live in various habitats, from tropical forests to arid deserts.

Four pangolin species can be found across Asia: the Indian pangolin, the Chinese (Formosan) pangolin, the Malayan (Sunda) pangolin, and the Palawan (Philippine) pangolin.

The four African pangolin species, which are the focus of our efforts, are found across southern, west, central, and east Africa. These are the Temminck’s ground pangolin, giant ground pangolin, the black-bellied pangolin, and the white-bellied pangolin.

What do pangolins eat?

Pangolins are insectivorous and live predominantly on a diet of ants and termites. They will supplement that diet with crickets, earthworms, worms, flies and even bee larvae. 

Estimates indicate that one adult pangolin can consume more than 70 million insects annually.

How long do pangolin live?

Little is known about how long pangolins live in the wild, but records show pangolins live up to 20 years in captivity. However, it’s very unlikely that you will see a pangolin in a zoo because pangolins don’t thrive in captivity.

Are pangolins a type of armadillo?

While pangolins do share a few characteristics and behaviours with armadillos, they are not related. Surprisingly, they are more closely related to cats, dogs, and bears!

How big are pangolins?

Pangolin species exhibit a range of sizes, with three larger species leading the scale. The largest among them is the giant pangolin, with an average adult weight of approximately 33kg.

Pangolins are about 150 mm long when born and weigh about 340 grams. Male and female pangolins differ in weight. In most species, males are 10-50% heavier than females. A pangolin’s scales make up one-fifth of its entire body weight. 

How can I identify different species of pangolins, such as the Indian pangolin and the Chinese pangolin?

The eight pangolin species have many similarities in their characteristics and habits but there are a few key differences. For instance, the four Asian pangolins can be told apart from the African species by the presence of bristles which emerge from between their scales.

The Chinese, Indian, giant ground pangolin and Temminck’s ground pangolin live mostly on the ground. They have claws on the front feet that are significantly larger than those on their hind feet. Also, their tails are wide and similar in length to the pangolin’s body.

The Philippine pangolin, Sunda pangolin, black-bellied pangolin and white-bellied pangolin spend much of their time in trees, so the claws on their front and hind feet are similar in size. Their tails are narrow, longer than their bodies, and adapted to grasp or wrap around objects like tree branches.

How do pangolins defend themselves?

When they feel threatened, pangolins roll up into a ball so only their scaly suit of armour is exposed. These sharp scales make it incredibly hard for prey such as lions and leopards to bite through. They also deter predators by hissing, puffing, and lashing their sharp-edged tails.

Can pangolins swim?

Pangolins are capable swimmers, but they prefer to stay on land. Interestingly, pangolins can sometimes be found mud bathing which is a great way to get rid of external parasites.

How do pangolins communicate with each other?

Pangolins are quiet creatures and make very few sounds. As they move or climb, their scales can be heard rubbing against one another or past the grass and vegetation. When waking up or eating, they audibly snort and chuff.

How do pangolins give birth to and care for their young?

Just like humans and elephants, female pangolins give birth to live young and nurse their babies. Females give birth to around one pup a year. On rare occasions, she can have twins.

There are no records of pangolin gestation periods, but various researchers have speculated this takes between three and 10 months. Temminck’s ground pangolins are believed to have a gestation period of 5 months, and many suggest this species only breeds every second year.

Pangolin pups are born with fully formed scales, but they are soft and only begin to harden over the first few days. Mothers nurture their young in nesting burrows if terrestrial or in a hollow tree or log if they are arboreal. She will leave the baby in this safe place while going out to eat but returns periodically to nurse the pup. When sleeping, or when she feels threatened, the mother will protectively roll around her baby.

When the pup is still an infant, it will ride on the base of the mother’s tail, hooking its claws under the mother’s scales. Pups become independent at around three to four months old. As they become more adventurous, they will alternate riding on their mother’s back with foraging nearby.

How do pangolins contribute to local ecosystems?

Pangolins play a crucial role in both Asian and African habitats. They provide pest control in forests by slurping up massive amounts of ants and termites. By digging their burrows, pangolins also help aerate soil, ensuring its is nutrient filled and fertile.

Can pangolins see well, or do they rely on other senses?

Pangolins have poor eyesight. They rely on their sense of smell, which is incredibly strong. This is enhanced by their small, cone-shaped heads and jaws lacking teeth, as well as their long, strong, sticky tongues which enable them to find and reach tasty ants and termites in deep cavities.

Why are pangolins endangered – is it because of pangolin scales?

It is believed that pangolins are one of the world’s most trafficked non-human mammals. The International Union for Conservation of Nature (ICUN) lists the four Asian species as critically endangered. The four African species are listed as vulnerable to endangered.

Ultimately, all species face declining populations because of illegal trade, electrocution by electric farm fences, road mortalities, and habitat loss.
Tens of thousands of pangolins are poached yearly, killed for their scales for use in traditional Chinese medicine and meat, a delicacy among some ultra-wealthy in China and Vietnam.

Why are pangolins hunted or poached?

Pangolin scales consist of keratin, a substance found in fingernails, hair, and horns. Despite lacking any substantiated medicinal properties, these scales are used in traditional Chinese and Vietnamese medicine to combat ailments such as arthritis, lactation, tumours, and ulcers.

Pangolins are hunted for their meat, be it for bushmeat or for sale as a fine delicacy.

How many pangolins are left in the world?

Pangolins are classified as critically endangered, endangered, or vulnerable depending on their species and region.

While many conservationists and researchers are studying pangolin populations, it is challenging to provide an exact number of how many pangolins are left in the world. This is due to the elusive and nocturnal nature of the animals.

What we do know is that sightings of pangolins are becoming more and more rare, which is obviously not a good sign.

What is being done to protect pangolins from extinction?

Despite all species of pangolins being banned from international commercial trade, much work and conservation still be done to stop the killing, trafficking, and demand for pangolins. Conservation initiatives include:

  • Reducing the demand for pangolin scales and meat through targeted campaigns
  • Law enforcement activities, such as anti-poaching units
  • Combating trafficking through international and local law enforcement, public education and awareness, community engagement, and conservation planning

How can people help in pangolin conservation efforts?

The key to pangolin conservation is to raise awareness about pangolins. This can be done by sharing reliable and well-researched information on social media and with friends and family.

Donating to verified pangolin-centred NGOs / NPOs goes incredibly far toward supporting Pangolin conservation efforts.

For example, when donating to Pangolin.Africa, all funds go towards much-needed research of the four African species of pangolins, and to implementing protection and rehabilitation projects on the ground.

Can pangolins be kept as pets?

It is illegal to keep pangolins as pets. Pangolins are also solitary animals, and they can be easily stressed when they encounter other large animals – including humans. Even just approaching them can be detrimental to their health.

What should you do if you see a pangolin in the wild?

Seeing a pangolin in the wild is a super rare privilege, and some might say the holy grail for all nature and wildlife enthusiasts.

It’s important that we behave appropriately when we do see a pangolin. It is not okay to simply approach a pangolin in the wild, even if it’s curled up and not moving. In fact, doing so can be incredibly stressful for the pangolin and is not advisable.

Become a Pangolin Guardian

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Become a Pangolin Guardian. Our flagship education program is a free, two-part course that gives you fascinating facts about Pangolins and what to do if you encounter one of these incredible creatures in the wild.