The BBC’s recent documentary, Natural World: Pangolins, has helped shine a spotlight on the plight of the pangolin – the world’s most trafficked animal. Due to their reflex mechanism to roll up into a ball when threatened, they are easy prey for poachers and in the last decade, up to a million of these gentle animals have been poached. Demand for their scales and meat is driven by a belief in some Asian countries that pangolin have magical properties that can prevent evil spirits and improve health. Eating pangolin meat is also considered by some to be a sign of wealth. In fact, pangolin scales are made of keratin (as is rhino horn), which is the same protein that makes up our hair and fingernails.
There are eight pangolin species, four of which are found in Africa and four in Asia. They are the only mammal with scales, which make up about 20% of their body weight and, despite looking similar to anteaters and armadillos, they are much more closely related to species from the order Carnivora, which includes dogs, cats and bears. All eight species are threatened with extinction and fall under CITES Appendix I, which means that international trade in specimens or products of these species is prohibited.
Malawi’s species, Temminck’s ground pangolin (Smutsia temminickii) is also known as the scaly anteater. A couple of months ago one was brought to the Wildlife Centre by WERU after being abandoned at Kamuzu International Airport by a trafficker who lost his nerve. Thankfully she was in a good general condition and after receiving some fluids, we released her back into the wild where she belongs.
You can read more about the ground pangolin here.