What is the most commonly hunted animal in the world? Surprisingly, it’s not the rhino or the elephant but the pangolin. According to a report by the non-governmental organisation WildAid in November 2019, 100,000 pangolins are being removed from the wild every year across Africa and Asia. But why should we be worried about the future of the pangolin?
WHAT ARE PANGOLINS?
Pangolins are a type of small mammal covered in distinctive brown scales. The pangolin shell is so hard that even lions and leopards find it difficult to pierce. When pangolins are in danger, they curl up into a ball, making it impossible for predators to attack them. During the day, pangolins spend their time in burrows. They come out to hunt at night-time.
There are eight species of pangolin, four of which are located in Africa. The white-bellied and giant pangolins are common in many countries, including Angola, Benin, Kenya, Tanzania and Zambia. However, it is now thought that the giant pangolin is extinct in Rwanda. The black-bellied pangolin lives in central and western Africa and the ground pangolin is the only species to be found in southern Africa. The other four species of pangolin are Asian.
WHY ARE THEY BEING HUNTED?
In both Asia and Africa, pangolins are prized for their scales, which contain keratin, the same protein in our fingernails and hair. These scales are used in traditional African medicine, along with pangolin bones and organs, for example for treating coughs in Ghana and skin conditions in Sierra Leone. The delicate flesh of the animals is also popular in Chinese and Vietnamese cuisine.
The number of Asian pangolins has decreased in recent times, which has made African pangolins more valuable. South Africa has become a centre for pangolin exports from Africa to Asia. According to the African Pangolin Working Group, just three years ago, in 2016, 19,599 kilograms of African pangolin scales were seized. That number has gone up to a record of 68,454kg this year.
WHY SHOULD WE CARE ABOUT PANGOLINS?
Each pangolin eats around 70 million ants and termites each year. Without pangolins, the number of these insects would be out of control, which would cause huge destruction to forest habitats. Pangolins also mix up soil with their claws when they are hunting for prey and building their burrows; this improves the quality of the nutrients in the ground. Any animal could become extinct if it is not protected properly and the pangolin is no exception.
WHAT IS BEING DONE ABOUT THE FALLING POPULATION OF PANGOLINS?
Since 1994, the Tikki Hywood Foundation in Zimbabwe has been rescuing pangolins from poachers and releasing them back into the wild. In 2011, World Pangolin Day was set up on the third Saturday of every February to teach people about these animals. In 2016, over 180 governments agreed to end the legal trade of pangolins. However, more work needs to be done to show local chiefs alternatives to pangolin products and raise awareness among schoolchildren about the importance of protecting these animals.