Of all the creatures that walk, trot, crawl, climb, slither, slink, fly or swim upon God’s greenish Earth, few can match the wicked-coolness of the pangolin. Native to Sub-Saharan Africa and Asia, the eight species of pangolin are akin to eight flavours of awesomeness!
Perhaps the appeal of these little-known, little-understood creatures derives from their striking combination of cuteness and sheer weirdness: their sad little eyes and protruding snouts are offset by their monstrous claws and alien-looking scales – and in fact, they are the only mammals with scales. Wicked cool!
Weighing heavily on the cute side, pangolin babies ride around on their mother’s tails until they are large enough to move on their own. Wicked cute!
Sadly, though, these are not happy times for pangolins. Although trade in pangolin products is illegal worldwide under CITES, one report calls them the world’s most heavily poached animal. The primary culprit, as with so much poaching, is Chinese traditional medicine. The scales and meat are held to possess remarkable health benefits, leading to massive demand among the burgeoning nouveau-riche of China and Vietnam. The scales are dried and powdered for medicinal supplements, and the meat is consumed at high-end restaurants – whenever possible, with live animals brought to the restaurants and killed there, sometimes in front of the customers.
I imagine that the price increases that come with their increasing scarcity – with the price of meat rising from $10 per kilo in the early 1990s to $200 per kilo in 2011, according to one article – only serve to increase the cachet of pangolin products as a status symbol. And with that kind of money involved, it’s not hard to get people to look the other way.
The four Asian species of pangolin have already been decimated by rampant poaching, having been virtually extirpated from China, Vietnam, Thailand and Cambodia – all countries that once had flourishing populations. Until recently Malaysia and Indonesia had healthier numbers, but they likewise cannot hold up against high rates of poaching forever, especially given the animals’ very slow rates of reproduction – they only bear one offspring per year. Seizures of multiple tonnes of pangolin meat are quite common in the region – quite disturbing when you consider that a full-grown Asian pangolin weighs perhaps ten kilos. In other words, a single seizure of pangolin meat or scales may represent thousands of critically endangered animals, and these seizures represent only a fraction of the tens or hundreds of thousands of pangolins making it to restaurants, wildlife markets and medicine shops each year. The four African species may not be far behind their Asian counterparts, as well: although they were initially spared due to their remoteness from the main markets for pangolin products, they are now being poached more heavily to make up for the increasing scarcity of the Asian varieties.
Aside from the conservation issues involved, I can’t help but feel sad for these shy, beautiful creatures that are pulled out of their forest homes, caged, transported thousands of kilometres without adequate water and food, and slaughtered in front of rich assholes – all in order to ensure their freshness.
Sadly, the pangolins are in no position to defend themselves from this mass slaughter, as their primary defense against predators is to roll themselves up into balls (hence their name: the word “pangolin” is derived from the Malay word “pengguling”, or “thing that rolls up”). In nature, the scales provide ample natural protection – they’re apparently so hard that, if your hand gets in the way while a pangolin is rolling into a ball, you can easily lose a finger. This works wonderfully against tigers, which would presumably gnaw on them a bit, lose interest in the hard, unappealing scales, and then wander off.
Unfortunately, nearly all of the world’s wild tigers are now dead, so this defense mechanism does not provide the evolutionary advantage that it once did. It also doesn’t work so well against poachers, who can conveniently toss the rolled-up critters into sacks and carry them off to be smuggled abroad.
Much has been made of the idea that pangolin conservation is inherently an uphill battle due to their lack of obvious appeal. Mainstream conservationism focuses too much on a handful of charismatic megafauna like lions, tigers and bears (oh my!), at the expense of less immediately appealing animals. This is the case even though these less charismatic animals may be even more vital to their respective ecosystems, or are being poached at far more alarming rates, as is the case with pangolins. But for me, the sheer oddness of pangolins only serves to enhance their otherworldly beauty. For me, it’s humbling to think that nature has been produced creatures as wild as anything to spring from the human imagination, even while we are busily engaged in exterminating them.
But to put the ineffable magic of the pangolin in more mundane terms, I can easily imagine pangolins as dogs that have shed their ears and donned suits of armour. And really, what’s cuter than an earless dog knight?
I have only had one pangolin encounter, if you can call it that. Several years ago I visited the Night Safari at the Singapore Zoo while traveling with a friend. While the other tourists gawked at the usual nocturnal megafauna, I dragged my friend to the unassuming side exhibit that featured smaller animals, including a single adult pangolin. I rushed up to the pangolin enclosure with childish glee; but although it was already late enough that the Night Safari was on the verge of closing, the nocturnal creature was nonetheless immersed in a nap, rolled cozily up into a tight little ball. My friend noticed my mounting desperation and started using the flash on her SLR camera to get the pangolin’s attention. Unfortunately, although I will now forever bear the karmic stain of someone who helped to harass an endangered animal, the gambit did not pay off: the pangolin continued to slumber, blissfully unaware of its obligation to entertain slack-jawed humans, and we were forced to leave the Night Safari without seeing its cute little earless dog face.
With poor, desperate local hunters and rampant official corruption and complicity on the supply side, the only hope of saving the pangolin seems to be on the demand end. But in spite of some signs that attitudes are changing toward wildlife products in East Asia, I’m not sure that enlightenment will come along soon enough to save animals that are being butchered at such a horrifying rate. So if you do visit Singapore, make sure to go to the Night Safari and look for the pangolin – they’re also very difficult to keep alive in captivity, so even zoos may not be able to keep them around too much longer. I can only hope you will catch the poor creature at a more fortuitous point in its sleep cycle. And if you share my bad luck, at least try to resist the temptation to annoy it until it wakes up.
Although most of this post has been written from memory, drawing upon years of interest in cool pangolin facts and morbid curiousity about the animal’s declining fortunes, I also did a little bit of fresh research. The first few articles I read led me through a painful gauntlet of incredibly depressing articles – some familiar to me, some new – about wildlife loss and deforestation in Southeast Asia. Here are a few especially soul-destroying examples courtesy of The Guardian:
- ‘Noah’s Ark’ of 5,000 rare animals found floating off the coast of China
- ‘Indonesia’s deforestation is a disaster for the planet’ – audio slideshow
- High-end Laos resort serves up illegal wildlife for Chinese tourists
I suppose we can thank The Guardian for its efforts to either stoke our indignation to the point of action, or perhaps just depress us to the point of passivity. Personally I find myself more in the latter camp as I write this, contemplating how utterly fucked our planet’s ecosystems are – especially the overexploited, incredibly fragile biodiversity-hospots-but-not-for-long of Southeast Asia. If poaching doesn’t wipe out the endangered species of the region, then logging will achieve the same result by depriving them of their habitats. And if nothing else does the trick, well, there’s always climate change.
On the bright side, at least dogs won’t be going extinct anytime soon. I think I’m going to give both of mine tummy rubs right now, so I’ll catch you later!