A fascinating, rare and unique animal, the pangolin is the source of many folklores, myths and superstitions. From people believing they fall from the sky instead of being born, to being bestowed the honour of bringing rain and good hope to all that sees one, the pangolin has forever held a special place in human hearts.
The order Philodota comprises eight species of pangolin. Of the eight, four occur in Africa, namely:
• White-bellied Pangolin of Equatorial Africa from Senegal to western Kenya, south to northwestern Zambia and southwestern Angola, as well as northeastern Mozambique
• Giant Ground Pangolin in Senegal to western Kenya, south to Rwanda, central DRC and southwestern Angola
• Temminck’s Ground Pangolin of northern South Africa, north and eastern Namibia, Zimbabwe, Mozambique, Botswana, southern Angola, southern Zambia, southeastern DRC, southern Rwanda, Malawi, Tanzania, eastern Uganda and western Kenya
• Black-bellied Pangolin of Equatorial Africa from Senegal and Gambia to western Uganda, south to southwestern Angola
The name pangolin comes from the Malay word pengguling, meaning “one who rolls up”.
Pangolins have powerful claws (with super strong nails), elongated snout and long tongue seen in the other unrelated anteater species of the world. In fact, another name for the pangolin is the “scaly anteater”. They typically weigh between 1.8 and 2.1 kg (4 to 7 lbs) and range in length from 30 to 100cm (12 to 40 inches).
Their diet consists of ants and termites, which they capture with that 40 cm (16 in) long tongue. One pangolin is estimated to eat about 70 million ants and termites every year! They very poor eyesight but use their supreme sense of smell and excellent hearing to hunt out termite mounds and ant hills.
Pangolin are easily identified by their tough scaly bodies and small heads. The large overlapping scales, resembling a pine cone, are made of keratin (like in human nails and hair) and they are the only mammals with this feature. The scales account for up to 20% of a pangolin’s weight!
These skittish animals are easily spooked and will roll up into a Lion-proof ball if they feel threatened. On top of that, they can emit a noxious-smelling chemical from glands near the anus, similar to the spray of a skunk. They are mostly nocturnal and are only rarely seen during daylight hours.
They live in hollow trees or deep burrows in the ground, depending on the specific species. Some of the species can walk on their hind legs, and others are even good swimmers!
Pangolins are solitary and meet only to mate, usually once during summer or autumn. The gestation period ranges from 70 to 140 days, depending on the species. African pangolins give birth to one offspring only, and when born their scales are white and soft. The young will stay in the burrow for the first two to four weeks of their lives, and weaning takes place at around 3 months.
They are unfortunately being hunted in alarming numbers for their scales and other body parts; in fact, pangolins are the most trafficked animal on the planet! They also face the threat of habitat destruction (heavy deforestation) in their natural habitat. All eight species of pangolin are classified by the IUCN as threatened with extinction, while two are classified as critically endangered. All pangolin species are currently listed under Appendix I of CITES which prohibits international trade.
Here at Nature Travel Africa, we support the protection of this magnificent species.