The Pangolin : such an awesome animal

While I’m awaiting the morning awakening of Koki from her box this morning, I remember there was a time when I had never met a pangolin. Was it less than 3 weeks ago?  For those of you who haven’t yet had the chance, may I introduce you to her?

Koki is a 4 month old black-bellied pangolin, so she is tree-living and out and about during the day, unlike her white-bellied relatives who are a larger nocturnal species also found around here. She was brought as a juvenile by local villagers to Rod and Tam, the owners of this lodge, with a severe injury – she had lost much of her tail – so they dressed the wound and bottle reared her.  These days she has moved onto ants, and gets taken out into the forest each day (after a feed of half a boiled egg and a bag of weaver ants which are brought in by staff and kept in the freezer. Often on defrosting the very hardy ants start wandering off!).  Once out in the forest, she heads up trees to look for ants, and is incredibly difficult – by which I mean for me, impossible – to spot, but fortunately she has 2 awesome BaAka (the local Pygmy tribe) men on our staff assigned to watch over her.  Their tracking skills in the forest are extraordinary.  Koki wanders back in mid-afternoon, eats another bag of frozen ants for a last snack before settling down to sleep in her box. At about 9pm she gets a hot water bottle to ensure she is warm for the night and then sleeps curled up until the morning.  (My claim to fame is the insulated box I created by stuffing kapok fluff from the nearby tree between a small cardboard inner carton and a larger outer one which prevents her waking cold in the night. So far it appears to work well!)

On rainy days like yesterday, Koki pops her head out from her box, checks the weather and goes back to sleep until the sun comes out!  ( In fact often she is more aware of the rain than Richard the other volunteer here or myself, or even the staff and if she heads home early, we know it is going to rain! )

A further two BaAka men follow Pangi, an older pangolin, raised by Rod and Tam, who now remains in the forest full-time. She is tracked daily to assess her movements, and we head out in th emiddle of the day with a GPS to record where we are shown by the tracking team that she slept, what type of tree and how high, as part of an ongoing research project into the habitat and food sources of black-bellied pangolins.

When I arrived there was one other very small pangolin, ‘Mson Mson’ (BaAka language for Petit Petit), who had been brought in but failed to take to the bottle, and although she ate ants when taken to them, she failed to thrive and one day last week she just returned to her box one afternoon and passed away. These pangolins grab your heart, the way they stretch out their tongues in the morning on awaking, the way they like their head gently stroked and their tummy ticked before they settle down to sleep, so it was heart-breaking to lose little Mson Mson – thats her in the pictures of Rod and Tam trying to tempt her with Sweat bee (and that is another story) honey from a tiny comb found on the edge of the lodge dining room. Its also her on the dining table saying hello to a slightly surprised but delighted lodge guest!

I have a feeling that

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

once one has met a black-bellied pangolin it curls up in a corner of one’s heart for ever.  For me, the ones here certainly have…..


Further facts for those interested:  ‘There are eight species of Pangolins , 4 found in Africa and 4 in Asia, some being tree-dwelling and others ground-living.  Highly specialised scaly ant-eaters, pangolins are typified by long muscular tails and horny scales (enlargements of the miniature scales found on rats and similar creatures). All of the tail and every outer surface of pangolins is protected but the face, throat, belly and inner limbs which are covered in conventional mammalian hair.’ Pangolin is a Malay name that means ‘ rolls up’ and for defence, all 4 species of pangolin found in Africa can present a continuous sphere of overlapping armour when curled up in a tight ball. Pangolins are toothless and have lost all capacity to chew, the lower jaw being reduced to a hinged strut. The tongues is as long as the head and body ( its an amazing sight when it gets poked out for a stretch in the morning!) and when not extended, it folds back into a throat pocket that visbly bulges and empties as the animal feeds. The tongue is very sticky and is served by enormous salivary glands so that forest species especially must drink frequently. This worm like tongue is affixed within the body to a spring-like extension of the sternum, allowing it to travel right down into termite holes and then whip back into the mouth smothered in insects. 

Sadly pangolins are prized both as meat, their soft skins, and for their scales which are used in traditional medicine. Pangolins are difficult to breed and mortality rates for pangolins in captivity is very high. Of the 4 Asian species, 2 are classified as ‘critically endangered’ and 2 as ‘endangered’ by the IUCN. All 4 African species are classified as vulnerable. Many of the siezed pangolin scales origination from Africa were found in mixed consignments, alongside rhino horn and ivory, mostly destined for Vietnam or China. Pangolin scales alone sell for as much as US$250/kg in destination markets, so the profit motive is clear. A survey of 18 high end restaurants in Vietnam found that pangolin was available in all of them, and in 16 of them it was the most expensive item on the menu. Between 2007 and 2013, an average of over 15000 live pangolin equivalents were seized annually. This is likely to be a fraction of the actual illegal trade.’  (ref. ‘African Mammals’ by Jonathon Kingdon ; World Wildlife Crime Report, UN Office on Drugs and Crime 2016.  )


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s