Despite their protected status in most countries where they occur, pangolins are still wrongfully traded for their scales and meat, like many other endangered and vulnerable species, for medicinal use. While they have no medicinal benefit, it is believed that over one million pangolins have been taken from their wild habitats in the last decade. With a growing awareness around these special creatures and a growing desire of photographic safari-goers to see them in the wild, we are seeing more reports of sightings these days. Here are 11 fascinating facts about everyone's favorite little armored creature, the elusive pangolin:
1. Pangolin babies ride on their mother’s back by hanging onto her scales. They are born live after a gestation period of 3-4 months.
2. They are not related to anteaters, sloths or armadillos, in fact they are more closely related to carnivores.
3. Pangolins are the only mammal with scales, making up about 20% of their bodyweight. The scales are made up of keratin – the same as human hair and nails, lion claws and rhino horn.
4. There are 4 pangolin species in Africa, of which 2 live in trees and 2 live on the ground.
5. They defend themselves by rolling into a tight ball to protect their soft bellies. Their sharp-edged scales can easily cut predators and they emit a putrid fluid from anal glands to ward off predators. The name derives from the Malay word “pengguling” which means “something that roles up”.
6. Pangolins use their long sticky tongues to eat ants and termites – up to 70 million per year. They locate their meals by using their acute sense of smell and dig using their strong claws. They have no teeth and eat small pebbles to aid with digestion. Pangolins can constrict their ears and nostrils while feeding to keep insects out.
7. They have poor vision and hearing, but an excellent sense of smell.
8. All pangolins have long curved claws on their front feet, while tree pangolins also have long claws on their back feet, plus a soft pad on the tip of the tail, to assist with climbing.
9. They are solitary and predominantly nocturnal, although they do become active earlier during cold weather. Young animals are also prone to be more active during the day.
10. Pangolins do not dig their own burrows but make use of abandoned aardvark, porcupine and warthog burrows. They may also shelter in termite holes, caves, in between rocks, shrubs or piles of debris.
11. Pangolins are bipedal, walking on their hind legs with the front limbs and tail held off the ground and used as a counter-balance.
Image of Katiti the pangolin © Christian Boix