Some years ago, and guided by the stench, latex gatherers in Southern Thailand’s Krabi province reported a gruesome find. There, deep in a local rubber plantation, were the rotting bodies of a man and wife. They had been murdered by persons unknown, but almost certainly by poachers involved in the same grisly business – that of hunting and selling pangolins.
Pangolins are big business. Whatever the facts of that case, it is mournfully evident that this highly lucrative trade, so lucrative that people are prepared to kill for it, continues. Though the figures may be wildly inaccurate, it has been estimated that 195,000 of these creatures, either already corpses or soon to become so, were traded on the black markets of South East Asia in 2019. A staggering one million may have been killed world-wide in the last decade. One recent figure suggests that current Asian numbers are down to 50,000.
Let me explain. Pangolins, so-called from the Malay word ‘pengulin’ meaning ‘rolled up’, are a threatened species, the most trafficked mammal on the planet. There are eight species, rated from ‘vulnerable’ to ‘critically endangered’. Four species, including the giant ground pangolin [smutsia gigantea] have habitats in sub-Saharan Africa, and four in Asia – Indian [manis crassicaudata], Philippine [m. culionensis], Sunda [m. javanensis] and Chinese [m. pentadactyla]. Thailand is one of the last bastions of this extraordinary creature. The last sighting in Phuket, where I live, was a year ago when a young female was found asleep in Kamala, having wandered out from the jungle, probably in the search for a mate. If you visit Kao Sok National Park, and are prepared for a night vigil in what is the oldest evergreen rainforest on the planet, there is a better chance you may glimpse one.
Pangolins are utterly unique – the only mammal to be covered in large, overlapping, metallic-looking scales – think pine-cones or globe artichokes – a flexible armour composed of up to 900 tough keratin plates, and intended to protect this harmless beast from its enemies. Slow moving, with poor eyesight and no teeth, it has only one defensive stratagem. When attacked, it rolls itself into a ball, thereby protecting its soft parts. Known as volvation, this is the same kind of defence that is employed by creatures as varied as the three-banded armadillo, the European hedgehog, the echidna and the so-called pillbug. Enough to deter a feral cat, maybe a clouded leopard , but sadly no defence at all against man – the arch predator. The human poacher simply picks up the living ball and pops it in a sack.
Known as the scaly ant-eater, the pangolin is often wrongly described as a reptile, but it is, in fact, the only scaled mammal, such a unique denizen of our planet that we ought to be strenuously safeguarding its precarious future. And it is utterly harmless, a gentle, nocturnal creature that hides during the day in subterranean burrows or hollows in trees, and only meets other pangolins to mate. It has a slim, streamlined body and an elongated snout, a long prehensile tail, which is useful for balance and powerful claws which enable it to climb trees and dig into the ground. Up to thirty inches long and weighing no more than ten kilos, the Asian females give birth to one, occasionally two babies a year, which are suckled and carried by the mother, clinging to the base of her tail, for several months. At first the scales are soft and white, making the young particularly vulnerable.
And pangolins are not only beguiling, they are useful; they help to maintain nature’s precarious balance. Why? Because they are efficient pest controllers: their diet consists almost exclusively of ants and termites. It is therefore an odd irony that habitat loss is less a reason for the creature’s virtual extirpation than is the case with most endangered species. After all, ants are in abundance everywhere, even in rubber plantations. While most insects are in catastrophic decline, ants – the most populous critter on earth [one million for every human] and one of the most aggressive – are enjoying a field day as their natural enemies such as pangolins go into steep decline. Ask any gardener and he will tell you that ants are a menace because they ‘farm’ and protect plant-killing pests such as sap-sucking wooly aphids and green-flies from their natural predators – the larvae of ladybirds, hoverflies and lacewings.
Termites are even less welcome neighbors, on account of their capacity to break down cellulose and destroy not only wooden structures, but crops and plantation forests. Recent research shows that they are also huge contributors to global greenhouse gases such as methane [1 to 3%] and carbon dioxide. No respecters of either ants or termites, insectivorous pangolins hoover them up with a long, sticky tongue up to 40 cms long attached to their stomach. Adept at opening up termite mounds with their powerful claws, they can consume many thousands of insects in a day. How their digestive system deals with all that formic acid is a mystery.
Nothing, however, better illustrates the sheer idiocy of the murderous trade in pangolins than the fact that the much prized scales are composed of keratin, the same substance as human hair and nails. No nutritional or medicinal value, certainly none as an aphrodisiac. Then why this absurd oriental obsession with pangolins? Of course, the flesh can be eaten, and in China and Vietnam it has long been considered a traditional delicacy, fetching up to 300 dollars a kilogram. But ironically, it is the scales that are big business. Boiled off the flesh of often living victims, and ground up to be used as medicines for ailments as diverse as cancer, blood pressure, and sexual dysfunction China, long the world’s biggest consumer of exotic flesh, has recently announced increased protection for the native pangolin [Manis pentadactyla], forbidding the use of scales in traditional concoctions. About time. In 2013 a Chinese vessel wrecked on a Philippine coral reef, was found to be carrying ten tons of frozen pangolins. So whether this sanction is working effectively remains to be seen.The problem is that the sheer extent of the trade in pangolins can be estimated only by the very rough guide of intercept numbers. But it is safe to say that, at the moment, insatiable oriental demand is probably being met by importations from Africa.
The whole business of animal parts possessing unusual and highly specific properties, is worth a quick look. In medieval Europe, there was believed to be a link, often visual, between natural phenomena and human organs. Thus walnuts, which have an uncanny resemblance to the brain, were believed, ipso facto, to be good for diseases of the cerebrum. By the same token, oysters are still believed to stimulate one’s libido, on the flimsy basis that the opened bivalve looks like the female pudendum. Costing a king’s ransom, and threatening the very existence of the species, rhinoceros horn and tiger penis are specifics for erectile dysfunction. As I write, there are two white rhinos left in the wild. Both female. Plants too come into the reckoning. Red ginseng and horny goatweed have been used as performance enhancers in China for centuries. In the ‘civilized’ west, foods recommended on internet sites and supposedly ‘sexy’ to eat, include artichokes, asparagus and strawberries.
I digress…. So what can we do to alleviate the plight of the persecuted pangolin? Thailand has, laudably, introduced measures to curtail the grisly trade by shutting down restaurants in Bangkok with pangolin meat on the menu. There have also been initiatives aimed at closing the main route for smuggling pangolins from the Malaysian border across Thailand to Laos and neighboring areas. But that the black-market trade still goes on here was evidenced recently by a friend who visited Chatuchak market in Bangkok. She found that though pangolins were no longer on open display incarcerated in tiny cages as they formerly were, they could still be surreptitiously acquired. Wink, wink, nudge, nudge….
The rest of the world has also made limited progress. Four years ago, 180 countries signed an agreement to outlaw all trade in the animal; in 2020, China introduced a law forbidding insurance companies from issuing policies designed to cover ‘medicines’ derived from pangolin scales. Encouragingly, 90% of the Chinese population are reportedly willing to support a total ban on the illegal trade in wild animals. One lifeline was thrown to pangolins of the world in 2020 when an article in the English ‘Guardian’ newspaper revealed that pangolins might be carriers of certain strains of Covid, thus rendering them less popular as delicacies or ‘cures’. But there is a counter-current at work. As more and more Asians become affluent, so does the availability of cash for ‘alternative’ potions.
Various initiatives are worthy of consideration. One, called the ‘Pangolin Project’, is based in Kenya and is dedicated to ‘pangolin research, conservation and protection’. Aimed at increasing awareness of this unique creature and its threatened status, it is creating a ‘Mobile Pangolin Technical Unit’, that will monitor populations in any given area. The much -respected ‘World Wildlife Fund’ [WWF] has an ‘Pangolin Adoption Scheme’; the ‘Wildlife Conservation Network’ [WCN] invites you to ‘ Save Pangolins’. Become a member and donate. All accept contributions. And finally, zoos are beginning to find ways of conserving this fascinating creature. Five years ago there were none in America; now there are 40 white-bellied tree pangolins with seven in Chicago’s Brookfield Zoo. At last, we may be able to unravel some of the mysteries surrounding the scaly ant-eater.
Whether all these reforms are too little and too late remains to be seen. The lure of easy money and the potency of superstition and ignorance are devilishly difficult to counter. Are we doing enough to educate generations to come? Is the pangolin, like a million other species, already past the point of no return? Is it going to become another white rhino? Even zoos have rarely managed to keep them alive.
Since I live in Thailand, the owner of land and a large, walled garden, I have always dreamed of having a pangolin on my patch. It would take care not only of the ants, but also of the green-flies. Such a wish remains a pipe-dream. If I managed to find one that wasn’t on its last legs- and all captive pangolins are inevitably emaciated and weak – it would never find enough ants and termites to satisfy its gargantuan appetite. 20,000 a day? As for Thai poachers…. No way, Jose.