Most of us have probably never seen a Pangolin in real life. They are fairly pre-historic looking – something like a walking pinecone or an artichoke with legs. They’re the only mammals covered in scales, which can protect them from predators. When threatened, they roll up into a tight ball baring their sharp scales which they can use like a saw. They are pretty well protected from all predators – except humans.

Ironically, it’s these scales that are the driving force behind the illicit pangolin trade, commanding huge prices on the black market. This has put all pangolin species at high risk of extinction. They are now the most trafficked mammals in the world – more than rhinos, elephants or tigers.

We do not have reliable estimates of how many pangolins remain in the wild. It’s thought that over a million individual pangolins were taken from the wild between 2000 and 2013. Currently it is estimated that 10,000 pangolins are illegally taken per year, compared to 200 tigers and 1,000 rhinos.

Pangolin scales are used in traditional Asian medicine, particularly in China and Vietnam. They are believed to have curative properties; however, pangolin scales are made of keratin, the same material that makes human fingernails and hair, and has no proven medicinal value. 

Pangolin meat is also considered to be a delicacy in these countries. The high price of pangolin meat (which you can order to be killed at your dining table in restaurants) makes it a very desirable status symbol.

Pangolins are often confused with anteaters and armadillos, but they are actually more closely related to cats and dogs.

There are four species of pangolin in Africa (and another four in Asia), but only one, Smutsia temminckii, or Temminck’s Ground Pangolin, has a range that extends into the northern parts of South Africa.

Pangolins feed mostly on ants and termites, which are gathered up either from the ground or in trees. Termite nests provide larger and more concentrated sources of food. Pangolins can dig termites from mounds with their specially adapted claws. Because they are toothless, they use their extremely long tongues to collect their prey. Large salivary glands coat the long tongue with a gummy mucus to which ants and termites stick.

A pangolin’s stomach is also specially adapted for grinding food. This process is helped along by the small stones and sand pangolins consume with their ants.

Pangolins’ insatiable appetite for insects gives them an important role in the ecosystem: pest control. Estimates indicate that one adult pangolin can consume more than 70 million insects annually.

Pangolins reach sexual maturity at two years of age. The gestation period for Temminck’s is four months. Most pangolins give birth to a single offspring. Their scales are soft and pale, and begin to harden by the second day. A mother will protectively roll around her baby when sleeping or if threatened. Babies nurse for three to four months, but can eat termites and ants at one month old. At this time, the baby begins to accompany the mother outside of the burrow, riding on the base of her tail as she forages for insects.

A ban on global trade in all pangolin species was introduced in 2016, but it has not been enough to stem the demand for these shy animals. Unlike the poaching of elephants and rhinos for their tusks and horns, the hunting of pangolins is still not widely known.

To read the full (and horrific) inside story about the pangolin trade go to

Whale Coast Conservation is privileged to host a showing of the documentary “Eye of the Pangolin” on Saturday 29 June 2019 at the Green House in Vermont. The documentary will be introduced by Helena Atkinson and Catherine Ritchie of the NGO Pangolin.Africa, co-producers of the movie. The Whale Coast Conservation Green House is on the mountain side of the R43 opposite the Lynx Avenue turn-off to Vermont. Children are most welcome. Entrance is free, but a donation is always appreciated.

About the Author


Whale Coast Conservation passionately lives by its slogan “Caring for your environment”.

Its small staff and volunteers are dedicated to

  • raising community and visitor awareness of the unique, biodiverse natural resources of the Cape Whale Coast region and
  • to projects that convert awareness into practical actions that lead towards living sustainably.

WCC ensures expert representation in public participation processes that contribute to environmental and developmental policies and legislation.  We monitor regional development; and ensure compliance with legislation and guidelines.

WCC increases general public awareness of sustainability through environmental education, citizen-science research projects, community projects and campaigns.

WCC communicates with its audience through exhibitions, signage, technology demonstrations, workshops, talks, film shows, newsletters and articles.

WCC places emphasis on educating future generations through its Youth Environment Programme (YEP).  YEP is offered to 24 schools in its target area with a total of over 10,000 learners.

WCC facilitates schools’ participation in special events such as Earth Day, Walking for Water, Arbor Day and Coastal Clean-ups.

WCC facilitates educator development programmes to improve the capacity of educators to offer informed environmental content in their lessons across all learning streams.

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