Weird & Wonderful Vol 8: Pangolin [Pholidota]

Pangolins belong to the family Manidae, which consists of three genera: Manis, Phataginus and Smutsia. Also known as scaly anteaters, they are the only known mammals that have keratin scales, covering their whole bodies.

Pangolin species are found across India, China and parts of Africa, eating solely ants and termites – up to 20,000 a day. In line with other ant eaters, they have specialised mouths with long tongues covered in sticky saliva and no teeth. To aid digestion, pangolins ingest stones (gastroliths) that contribute to mechanical digestion in the stomach. The gizzard, where these stones are stored, is also covered in keratinous spikes.

Though cute to many of us, they tend to be solitary animals that only meet others of their species to breed. Offspring stay with the mother for up to two years, after which they are sexually mature and the mother will abandon them.

Unfortunately, it is the unique scales owned by the pangolin that is its reason for targeted trafficking. The scales have a high value in the market of traditional medicines, and its meat is also sought after. It has been estimated that over a million pangolins fell victim to wildlife trafficking in the last decade alone, despite being listed under CITES Appendix I.

IUCN lists all 8 pangolin species as threatened, with 3 being critically endangered.

Worse, at the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic outbreak, evidence was found linking similarities in the nucleic acid sequences of the spike-proteins on coronaviruses in pangolins to that of SARS-CoV-2 (covid19). Hastily, trade of pangolins was suggested as a vector of spread from animals to humans, but later it was observed that there was only a 92% whole-genome similarity. Unfortunately, the earlier suggestion may have led to a mass slaughter of pangolins in order to attempt to cull the disease.

Efforts are being made by several organisations to protect and conserve pangolins, such as the IUCN and Chinese NGOs. Conservation is tricky due to the sheer amount of trafficking routes as well as the captive specifications pangolins need to thrive and breed, being very sensitive to their environment and also disease as a result of genetic dysfunctions.

Ideas of farming pangolins to mitigate wildlife trafficking have been entertained but without success.

For now, raising awareness to the issue in order to garner support and cracking down on wildlife trafficking seem to be the most effective strategies to save pangolins. Changing cultural approaches to traditional medicine is no easy task, but more than 150 trafficking routes have already been identified by conservation group TRAFFIC that are to be shut down.


Weird & Wonderful Vol 8: Pangolin [Pholidota]

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