Wildlife in Trade Programme


Pangolins belong to the mammalian order Pholidota and are placed in their own family, Manidae. There are eight species of pangolins worldwide: three in Asia, one in India and four in Africa. Pangolins are a unique group of mammals that are characterised by having a covering of scales rather than fur. These scales are composed of keratin (the same material that makes up human fingernails), although some species also have a hard layer of calcareous material underneath the keratin. The belly, underside of the head and inside of the limbs is not covered with scales. All pangolin species have long, strong claws on their front limbs which are used for digging and climbing (in the arboreal species). The arboreal species have long, recurved claws on their hind feet and a long, prehensile tail to further assist them when climbing. The two ground pangolin species have short nails on their hind feet, an adaptation to their terrestrial way of life. They are predominantly solitary and nocturnal, but become active earlier in winter and some individuals may become entirely diurnal during winter.

Pangolins are entirely myrmecophagous - that is to say they only feed on ants and termites. The proportion of ants and termites consumed varies seasonally and geographically, but typically 90–95 % of the diet consists of ants and the remaining 5–10 % of termites. Some of the Indo-Asian species are believed to feed on other insects as well, but there have been too few studies to verify this. Pangolins are very important natural predators of these insects, keeping their numbers in check. A single pangolin literally consumes millions, if not billions, of ants, termites and their larvae each year. The tongue is very long - as long as the head and body combined - and is thin and covered in sticky saliva. The tongue is folded back into a special sheath called the Xiphisternum, which curls along the abdomen wall to the pelvic region and curls upwards and forwards before ending in a blind sac against the diaphragm.

Pangolins have fixed territories which are shared by an adult male and female, as well as the previous year’s offspring. Territory boundaries are presumably demarcated through scent-marking and adjoining territories overlap only marginally. Males have rarely been seen to engage in combat, during which time they rise up on their back legs and slash at each other with the long claws on the front limbs. A larger animal may also try to wrap around his smaller opponent and squeeze him.

Pangolins are mammals and as such give birth to live young. Pangolins have pectoral mammary glands, like humans and elephants. Females give birth to one baby (which is called a pup) a year and may rarely give birth to twins. It is believed that the ground pangolin species may only give birth every second year. The gestation period is about 3–4 months. The pups are born with fully-formed but soft scales, which harden over the first few days. The mother leaves the baby in a burrow (terrestrial species) or hollow tree or log (arboreal species), periodically returning to nurse it. When about one month old, the baby accompanies the mother while she forages. The pup hitches a ride on the base of the mother’s tail, hooking its claws under the mother’s scales. As the pup grows it becomes more adventurous, alternating riding on the mother’s back with foraging nearby. Pups become independent at 3–4 months, but will remain in their natal home range until about 1 year old.

Pangolins make very few sounds. When they walk or climb, their scales can be heard rubbing against one another and against the vegetation. When awakening or feeding, they snort and chuff audibly. Males also rarely make a soft hooting noise.
Pangolins are long-lived and are believed to live for up to 20 years in the wild, with the oldest recorded pangolin (an Indo-Asian species) living for more than 19 years in a zoo. This is the exception, however, as pangolins do not survive well in captivity and most die very soon after entering captivity. This is the reason why there are virtually no pangolins in captivity or in zoo’s worldwide.


Copyright: Wilson, D.E. & Mittermeier, R.A. eds. (2011). Handbook of the Mammals of the World. Vol. 2. Hoofed Mammals. Lynx Edicions, Barcelona.

Temminck’s Ground Pangolin (Smutsia temminckii)
Temminck’s Ground Pangolin is the most widespread of the four African pangolin species, occurring from northern South Africa through most of East Africa and into southern Sudan and southern Chad. It is the second-largest species, with the largest individual weighed at 19 kg, and individuals have a length of up to 1.2 m. The typical mass is 7–12 kg, being smaller in the south-west of the range and larger in the east and north. This species is entirely terrestrial and prefers savannahs and woodlands. Their territory’s range in size from 600–1400 hectares (6–14 km2), and are smaller in younger animals. They are classified as Vulnerable on the IUCN Red List, and their population is believed to be decreasing.


Giant Ground Pangolin (Smutsia gigantea)
This is the largest of the African pangolin species, and is also the rarest. It is a terrestrial species, inhabiting forests and forest-savannah mosaics in Central and West Africa, marginally entering East Africa as well. Adults may attain a length of 1.5 m and weigh up to 33 kg, but individuals of this size are rare. They are listed as Vulnerable on the IUCN Red List, and the population is believed to be declining.


White-bellied Pangolin (Phataginus tricuspis)
This small, arboreal species is quite widespread and is also the species most frequently encountered. They frequently come to the ground while foraging or when crossing open patches, but quickly ascend the nearest tree when disturbed. Adults are small, measuring up to 1.05 m but with a maximum mass of only 3 kg and an average mass of 1–2 kg. They prefer tropical lowland forests in Central and West Africa, but are also found in secondary forest, abandoned palm plantations and moist woodland. Females have home ranges of 3–4 hectares (0.03–0.04 km2), while males may range over an area of up to 30 hectares (0.3 km2). The body is covered with numerous small scales and each scale has three small points when new (hence the species name). This species is listed as Vulnerable on the IUCN Red List, with a population that is rapidly declining due to its prevalence in domestic and international trade.


Black-bellied Pangolin (Phataginus tetradactyla)
This is a small, predominantly arboreal species and is probably the most habitat-specific of the four African pangolin species. It occurs at low densities in swamp forests in West and Central Africa, apparently never very far from water. It is considered to be semi-aquatic in parts of its range, especially where it co-occurs with the White-bellied Pangolin. Adults may grow up to 1.1 m and weigh up to 3.5 kg, although usually weighing 1–2 kg. This species is listed as Vulnerable on the IUCN Red List with a population that is believed to be decreasing.

African Pangolin Working Group

The African Pangolin Working Group was established on 27 June 2011, following an inaugural meeting by a diverse group of people who all have one passion in common – understanding and protecting pangolins in Africa. We are the official African representative to the International Union for the Conservation of Nature – Species Survival Commission Pangolin Specialist Group (IUCN-SSC PSG www.pangolinsg.org). The organisations’ objectives are encompassed by its mission statement:

“The African Pangolin Working Group will strive towards the conservation and protection of all four African pangolin species by generating knowledge, developing partnerships and creating public awareness and education initiatives”

Pangolins in Africa are under increasing threat from man. Every year numerous individuals are illegally exported to Asian markets while many more individuals are traded domestically, are accidentally killed on electrified game fences and on roads. The current rate of consumption is believed to far exceed the reproductive potential of the species, with the result that these species are being pushed ever closer to extinction.

The groups’ activities are multi-faceted, and all aim to conserve these unique and iconic mammals. We have a strong focus on research as this guides direct conservation initiatives while providing concrete information that can be used in the other facets. We also engage with provincial, national and international law enforcement agencies to better protect pangolins through capacity-building and advice. Thirdly, we undertake public awareness campaigns in order to highlight the existence and the plight of pangolins so that people can make informed decisions and we also work closely with rehabilitation centres to ensure that confiscated pangolins are returned to the wild whenever possible. We also engage with national and international NGOs, NPOs, scientists and other role-players, sharing knowledge and working together to ensure the continued survival of pangolins and other threatened species.

Help protect pangolins – report pangolin crimes!
Hanoi, January 13, 2015, VTV news host and celebrity Ms. Hoai Anh has called on the public to help stop the illegal trade of endangered pangolins in a new public service announcement (PSA) released today by Education for Nature – Vietnam (ENV). Reporting on the crisis facing pangolins, Hoai Anh urges viewers to take action against wildlife traders by reporting pangolin crimes to ENV’s national toll free Wildlife Crime Hotline (1-800-1522)....read more

Darren Pietersen
+27 82 937 6052