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 Learn About Pangolins

One of the most trafficked mammals on Earth

What is a pangolin?

Pangolins are a truly unique group of animals. Armored in scales, toothless and silent, equipped with long and sticky tongues that slurp up ants and termites, pangolins have special features and unique behaviors that set them apart from other mammals. There are eight species of pangolin found throughout Africa and Asia. The four African species are the Black-bellied pangolin (Phataginus tetradactyla), White-bellied pangolin (Phataginus tricuspis), Giant pangolin (Smutsia gigantea) and Temminck's Ground pangolin (Smutsia temminckii). The four Asian species are the Indian pangolin (Manis crassicaudata), Philippine pangolin (Manis culionensis), Sunda pangolin (Manis javanica) and the Chinese pangolin (Manis pentadactyla).

What do pangolins eat?

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Pangolins are myrmecophagous, meaning their diet mainly consists of ants and termites. As such, they have no use for teeth and are otherwise highly adapted to their specialized diets. They have extremely long and sticky tongues that can reach deep inside the tunnels and chambers of insect nests. The pangolin’s tongue attaches to the end of its sternum, which extends far into the abdomen and is anchored by powerful muscles. Pangolin’s have an elongated snout with nostrils they can close and thick eyelids to protect them against bites and stings they endure while feeding. Pangolins use their powerful claws to break into termite mounds, dig into the ground, and lift tough tree bark. While they may seem harmless to us, pangolins are ruthless predators to ants and termites!

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powerful claws

Long tongue extending into the abdomen

Pangolins are the only scaly mammal. They are (almost) completely covered in tough, overlapping scales which provide them with armor-like protection. A pangolin’s scales evolved from hair and are made up of hardened keratin, the same substance which makes up our hair and nails. Their soft underbellies and snout however, are not protected, and the pangolin will roll into a ball to protect itself. Unfortunately, this unique feature is what has made pangolins so threatened.  Pangolins are targetted for their scales, which are used in traditional medicines in both Asia and Africa.

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The pangolin is believed to have earned its name from the Malay word “penguling”, which roughly translates to “one that rolls up”. Indeed, pangolins will roll up into themselves when feeling threatened, tucking their snout and feet inwards to form an armored ball, protected by its scales. They will maintain this position until the threat is gone, sometimes staying rolled up for hours. Toothless and otherwise non-aggressive, this rolling behavior is the pangolin’s only defense against predators.

They are predominantly nocturnal and elusive, secretive mammals. Pangolins are notoriously difficult to detect in the wild thanks to their elusive behavior and preference for being active at night. They are not social animals and are instead solitary, with the only significant social bonds occurring between a mother and her pup(s). 

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Threats to Pangolins

Pangolins and their scales have been used throughout human history virtually everywhere they occur. Their meat is consumed as a source of protein and is also considered a delicacy in certain countries. In Africa, pangolins are eaten as wild meat, especially in West and Central Africa, where local rather than international trade is predominant. Estimates suggest that at least 400,000 pangolins are hunted and consumed locally in Central Africa each year. In Asia, pangolin meat has become a delicacy and the majority is traded internationally, mainly to China and Vietnam, as well as other countries in Southeast Asia. The high price and perceived rarity means consumers eat pangolins as a luxury product to demonstrate their wealth and reinforce social status.

Pangolin scales are used in traditional medicines across both Asia and Africa, but the primary market for their commercial use is Traditional Chinese Medicine. Purported to have healing properties that treat illnesses related to circulation, including lactation and high blood pressure, clinical Western studies indicate there is no evidence supporting these claims. Consumer demand for pangolin scales for their use in traditional medicines has pushed all eight species of pangolins toward extinction.

In recognition of the unsustainable levels of trade and consumption of pangolins and their parts, pangolins have been afforded international protection. Yet illicit international trade continues. Indeed, pangolins have a long history with CITES, the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora, which aims to ensure that wild species do not go extinct as a result of international trade. Each pangolin species was included in CITES Appendix II in 1995, meaning trade should be closely regulated, and in the year 2000, zero export quotas for wild-caught specimens traded for primarily commercial purposes were established for the Asian pangolins. Due to ongoing concerns about the overexploitation of pangolin populations, each species was included in CITES Appendix I at CoP17 in 2016, establishing an international trade ban on commercial trade in wild-caught pangolins and their derivatives. Pangolins are also protected species in most of their range countries under national legislation, but illegal harvest and trade continues seemingly unabated. Illegal shipments containing tonnes of scales, representing hundreds of thousands of individuals, continue to be seized by law enforcement in both Asia and Africa. 

It is estimated that more than one million pangolins have been taken from the wild in the last decade. 


Pangolin Conservation Status

Unsustainable levels of offtake in recent decades have resulted in steep declines of the Asian pangolin populations, especially in China and Southeast Asia. In some places this has resulted in the commercial extinction of the species, or the loss from some sites altogether.


In the last decade, there has been an increase in the trafficking of African pangolin scales, mainly from West and Central Africa, to Asian markets. This shift has caused an increase in hunting pressure on African species and there is an urgent need to understand the impact of this increased exploitation through ecological monitoring.


​The International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List of Threatened Species is the global authority on assessing the extinction risk of nearly 150,000 species.  Species are considered by the IUCN to be “Threatened” with extinction if they are classified as Vulnerable, Endangered, or Critically Endangered. These categories represent increasing risk of extinction, respectively. Species are evaluated on a set of criteria to determine if they are Vulnerable, Endangered, or Critically Endangered.  These criteria include information on population size, rate of population decline, causes of population decline, and the size, degree of fragmentation, and rate of decline of its geographic range. The Red List has evolved into a biodiversity health indicator and a catalyst for conservation action.

All eight species of pangolin are considered to be threatened with extinction...

Based on the best available evidence, the IUCN Red List assessments for pangolins were updated in December 2019 and concluded that all pangolins are threatened with extinction, with species listed as either Critically Endangered, Endangered, or Vulnerable.

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The Future of Pangolins

Not long ago, most people could not tell you what a pangolin was. Now, thanks to significant global efforts to elevate the status of pangolins and increase public awareness of their plight, pangolins are at the forefront of international policies to regulate unsustainable trade and combat wildlife trafficking. In November 2023, President Biden issued a statement to the U.S. Congress highlighting the urgent need to address the continued trafficking of pangolins to the People’s Republic of China, which remains the largest market for pangolin scales.  

Yet while pangolins are benefitting from greater attention, there is still urgent work to be done to ensure their sustainable future. Necessary actions include improving law enforcement efforts in many countries, reducing demand for pangolins through campaigns in countries where consumption continues, strengthening legislation for pangolins in countries where they occur as well as transit countries, and providing alternative employment for the people who rely on hunting wildlife.

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What is being done?

 In 2014 the Pangolin Specialist Group launched a global conservation action plan, Scaling up Pangolin Conservation, which outlines actions that critically require implementation in order to conserve pangolins.

World Pangolin Day

World Pangolin Day, which is celebrated on the third saturday of the month of February, is one of the most impactful wildlife awareness days. Pangolin enthusiasts from all over the world celebrate and help raise awareness of the threats these animals continue to face. Become a pangolin enthusiast and celebrate this year's World Pangolin Day on February 17, 2024!



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Visit the Sapeli page to learn what we are doing for pangolin conservation

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