Pangolin species vary in size from about 1.6kg (~3.5 lbs) to a maximum of about 33kg (~73 lbs). They vary in color from light to yellowish brown through olive to dark brown. Protective, overlapping scales cover most of their bodies. These scales are made from keratin — the same protein that forms human hair and finger nails. Overlapping like artichoke leaves, the scales grow throughout the life of a pangolin just like hair; scale edges are constantly filed down as pangolins dig burrows and tunnel through the soil in search of termites and ants. Pangolin undersides do not have scales, and are covered with sparse fur. Unlike African pangolins, Asian pangolins also have thick bristles that emerge from between their scales.

With small conical heads and jaws lacking teeth, pangolins have amazingly long, muscular, and sticky tongues that are perfect for reaching and lapping up ants and termites in deep cavities. Pangolins have poor vision, so they locate termite and ant nests with their strong sense of smell. A pangolin’s tongue is attached near its pelvis and last pair of ribs, and when fully extended is longer than the animal’s head and body. At rest a pangolin’s tongue retracts into a sheath in its chest cavity. A pangolin’s stomach is muscular and has keratinous spines projecting into its interior. Usually containing small stones, the stomach mashes and grinds prey in much the same manner as a bird’s gizzard.

Pangolin limbs are stout and well adapted for digging. Each paw has five toes, and their forefeet have three long, curved, claws used to demolish the nests of termites and ants and to dig nesting and sleeping burrows. Pangolins shuffle on all four limbs, balancing on the outer edges of their forefeet and tucking their foreclaws underneath as they walk. They can run surprisingly fast, and will often rise on their hind limbs to sniff the air. Pangolins are also capable swimmers, and while some pangolin species such as the African ground pangolin (Manis temmincki) are completely terrestrial, others, such as the African tree pangolin (Manis tricuspis), are adept climbers, using their claws and semi-prehensile tails to grip bark and scale trees.

There are eight pangolin species. All pangolins belong to the genus Manis in the family Manidae, which is the only family within the order Pholidota. Although pangolins share similar characteristics with Xenarthrans (anteaters, armadillos, and sloths), they are in fact more closely related to the order Carnivora (cats, dogs, bears, etc.).

The Problem

Pangolin is an endangered species and the problem we have in Africa is that this species is being poached with some believing that the scales of a pangolin can be used for medicinal purposes, however this is not the case as the scales of a Pangolin are made from Keratin, the same fibrous protein used to make fingernails and hair.

In Asia their survival is threatened mostly by the loss of habitat due to human residence and farming expansion.

Asian pangolins:

  • Chinese pangolin (Manis pentadactyla) – Critically Endangered
  • Sunda pangolin (Manis javanica) – Critically Endangered
  • Indian pangolin (Manis crassicaudata) – Endangered
  • Philippine pangolin (Manis culionensis) – Endangered

African pangolins:

  • Cape or Temminck’s Ground pangolin (Smutsia temminckii) – Vulnerable
  • White-bellied or Tree pangolin (Phataginus tricuspis) – Vulnerable
  • Giant Ground pangolin (Smutsia gigantea) – Vulnerable
  • Black-bellied or Long-tailed pangolin  (Phataginus tetradactyla) – Vulnerable

How to help

In Zimbabwe The Tikki Hywood Trust supports endangered species that are not usually given so much attention as the big cats or the Big Five. They can be located on the following website:

If visiting Zimbabwe, please be sure to enquire about their situation in the areas you visit and share consciousness at home and away.

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