The Last Pinecone: On This World Pangolin Day

The world’s strangest mammals are also its rarest, and may soon join the Chinese paddlefish in the sad annals of the lost.

A front view of a giant pangolin, showing its scaly body and legs and how it walks bipedally, carrying its front limbs above the ground and balancing its torso's weight with a long, heavy tail.
A giant pangolin, Smutsia gigantea, one of the four African species. From the Telegraph

Pangolins look like something out of a science fiction film, scaled and furred with heavy builds and front claws so large that most of them are bipedal on the ground. They share this build with American anteaters and armadillos, African aardvarks, and Australian echidnas, and like these creatures, their primary diet is ants and similar insects. Old sources style pangolins as “scaly anteaters” and imagined a close kinship between all of these animals, but more recent work shows that they evolved these similarities independently, in response to their shared diet. The pangolins’ closest living relatives now appear to be the Carnivora, the group containing cats, dogs, hyenas, seals, and their kin, separated by substantial fossil distance. While many of these cousins are known for being dangerous predators, the pangolins are mostly shy and inoffensive, preferring invisibility and rolling into an armored ball to wait out attackers. In impressive ways, they resemble ambulatory pinecones.

A Sunda pangolin, showing the flexibility of its scale-covered body and its relatively short snout. This species is arboreal.
A Sunda pangolin, Manis javanica, one of the Asian species. From Indonesia Traveling Guide

Like an armadillo’s shell, a pangolin’s scales are made of keratin, the same material that comprises mammal horns and fingernails. In a real sense, pangolin scales are made of densely fused hair, and they can be lifted and moved to, for example, crush ants defending their nest by getting between them to bite the underlying skin. Combining this highly unusual protective coat with the pangolin’s specialized tongue, which is disconnected from the hyoid bone in the throat to allow it to be up to a third of the animal’s total length, and their tiny, narrow heads provides an alien visage that no other creature on Earth can match.

A baby Sunda pangolin being bottle-fed in an attendant's arms. Its scaly coat has not yet grown in fully. It lays on and lightly grasps its handler's arms.
A baby Sunda pangolin being hand-fed. From The Dodo.

What brings us here today, however, on World Pangolin Day, is the fact that the eight species of pangolin (four in Africa, four in Asia) are the most trafficked endangered animals in the world. Pangolins feature prominently in traditional East Asian medicine, particularly their scales, which are assigned numerous magical properties up to and including easing lactation and curing infections. In reality, powdered pangolin scales have no medicinal properties that powdered human fingernail clippings do not have, being made of exactly the same substance, but this intrusion of science into magic does not stop thousands of pangolins from being harvested from the wild to have their scales, blood, and other parts removed for Chinese and other markets. To detach the scales from the skin, pangolin processors boil the entire animal, often while it is still alive. Demand for this cruel practice has made Asia’s native pangolins exceptionally rare and turned the medicinal-product-market’s eye toward the African species, which are now smuggled to Asia for the same treatment.

An open pit with a backhoe and Indian conservation officials behind, containing hundreds of dead pangolins.
A pit in India’s Madhya Pradesh, where thousands of dead pangolins confiscated from smugglers are being disposed of to prevent resale. Most of the pangolins had already been de-scaled, showing the white skin underneath. The de-scaled remains would otherwise have been sent, frozen, to Chinese markets, as exotic food and for further medicinal dissection.

A corollary crime against nature is that pangolins’ very rarity has created an additional market for them even as it continues to raise the price of useless scale extracts. Now, as a strange-looking and extremely rare animal, the pangolin can also be found on the secret menus of restaurants, costing dozens of times what less illegal wild meats would cost and sought entirely for the thrill of eating something that is not long for this earth.

Pangolins are nervous and delicate creatures, and trained specialists have difficulty keeping them healthy in captivity. Captive pangolins are prone to bacterial infections, presumably related to the stress of as-yet-not-ideal accommodations. Wild pangolins are solitary and spend a great deal of time hiding in opportunistic burrows, making solid ecological data labor-intensive to acquire. (See also how the only amount of funding humans seem to know how to provide science is “way the fuck not enough.”) Those whose diets have been studied in detail suggest that pangolins are very particular about their food, selecting specific ant species rather than whatever is handy, making them tricky to feed. Pangolins mate infrequently, bear small litters, and avoid each other the rest of the time, making captive breeding programs exceptionally difficult to establish and maintain. Most pangolin-themed facilities in Asia and Africa concentrate on rehabilitating pangolins rescued alive from poachers and smugglers, but even in rehab centers, morale is low. Individual rescued pangolins might be poached again after recovery, and are sometimes treated for injuries and dehydration or malnourishment on multiple occasions. Because of this, no serious pangolin-scale-farming operation has ever taken off, or possibly even been attempted, and rehabilitation and breeding operation for ecological restoration work can make only the smallest dent in the world’s losses.

As the most informative articles about pangolins note, there are only a handful of events that can end the threat to the pangolins. Even shooting poachers on sight will not stem their tide, because opportunities for poacher-level money in Southeast Asia and sub-Saharan Africa are far too rare. The kingpins running the smuggling operations need to have the shelter of their bribes removed from them and be laid low before the operations will break, and they need to be replaced with other gainful opportunities before they won’t reappear. To end the demand, the insistent pull of the magical thinking that claims that rhinoceros horns and tiger spleens are components of healing spells needs to die a long-belated death. Without the toll of thousands being taken and boiled alive for their magic skin, pangolin populations could recover enough to perhaps even endure the harvests of bushmeat hunters and desires of rich dilettantes visiting food vendors in Asia, and we could have a world full of the rare joy of Pholidota for the foreseeable future.

If such successes are not won, the tree, long-tailed, giant, ground, Chinese, Indian, Sunda, and Philippine pangolins will, one by one, fade from this world, reduced to mounted specimens in museums and dwindling jars of magic toenails on people’s shelves, and we will file the many videos of their adorable cuteness alongside the haunting last views of the thylacine and the golden toad.

Our world deserves better from us. They deserve better from us.

May the walking pinecones outlive us all.

The Last Pinecone: On This World Pangolin Day