The Amazing, Elusive Pangolin

Pangolin near Cape Town, South Africa. Photo by Ed. Used through a Creative Commons license.
Pangolin near Cape Town, South Africa. Photo by Ed. Used through a Creative Commons license.

When we visited South Africa last month, our group had a running joke. “This place is amazing, but I can’t believe we haven’t seen any pangolins yet!” we’d say in mock surprise, referring to the scale-covered mammal that has been compared to anteaters and armadillos, but is more closely related to cats.

OK. So it’s not the funniest joke in the world. But it amused us. And the reason it amused us is because not seeing a pangolin is to be expected on most safaris. They are one of the most elusive mammals in Africa. They’re rarely out in the day and difficult to find at night. And there aren’t very many of them. Of the four pangolin species living in Africa, two are listed as endangered and the other two as vulnerable. Some guides who have worked in the bush for years have never seen one.

Unfortunately, the African pangolin population is seeing increasing pressures on its population due to the illegal wildlife trade. Poachers who can find them often kill them so their scales can be sent abroad, mostly to China and Vietnam, where their use in traditional medicine has devastated Asian pangolin populations. (Like rhino horn, pangolin scales have no medicinal properties. They are made of keratin, the same stuff found in hair and fingernails.)

Pangolins are fascinating creatures. Some might even call them cute. For a quick primer on their amazingness, check out Africa Geographic’s 11 Fascinating Pangolin Facts.

And in case you’re wondering, we never did see a pangolin. Guess I’ll just have to go back soon to keep searching.

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(This post was written by Kathryn Kingsbury, Ujuzi’s communications coordinator, who traveled to South Africa in March.)

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