Pangolins, or scaly anteaters, are nocturnal, ant- and termite-eating mammals found in Asia and Sub-Saharan Africa whose bodies are covered with overlapping scales made of keratin, the same protein that forms human hair and finger nails, and rhino horn. Thought to be among the most trafficked mammals in the world, pangolins are threatened by unsustainable and illegal international and domestic trade of their scales, which are used in traditional Asian medicine, and their meat, which is considered a luxury food in many cultures, as well as by habitat loss.
There are eight pangolin species worldwide. Four of the species can be found in 17 range states across Asia, and four in 31 range states across Africa. Pangolins occupy a diverse array of habitats; some are arboreal or semiarboreal and climb with the aid of prehensile tails, while others are ground-dwelling. Some pangolin species such as the Chinese pangolin and Temminck’s ground pangolin sleep in underground burrows during the day, and others including white-bellied pangolins and Sunda pangolins are known to sleep in trees. Pangolins dig burrows with their strong front legs and claws, using their tails and rear legs for support and balance.
Pangolins are insectivores. They use their claws to break into nests of ants and termites, and they use their long, sticky tongues to lap up the insects. A juvenile pangolin will remain with its mother for three to four months clinging to her tail as she forages for insects. Pangolins have few defenses beyond their scaly exterior. While their habit of rolling up in a ball is an effective response to predators, the behavior actually makes it easier for poachers to collect and transport these toothless mammals.
At the 17th Conference of the Parties (CoP17) of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES), held in Johannesburg, South Africa in September 2016, all eight pangolin species were uplisted from Appendix II to Appendix I. Leading up to and during this meeting, the United States worked closely with a coalition of countries and non-government organizations committed to gaining support for the Appendix I-listing proposals. As of January 2, 2017, the listings have gone into effect, banning the commercial trade of all eight pangolin species and their parts, and empowering range states to increase domestic protections to fight the tremendous threats facing the species.
Despite protections under CITES and domestic laws, poaching and illegal trade in pangolins continue at a high rate. Recent IUCN Red List of Threatened Species assessments indicate that all eight species are declining and at risk of extinction. One species of pangolin, the Temminck’s ground pangolin, is also listed as Endangered under the U.S. Endangered Species Act (ESA).
Experts estimate that more than one million pangolins have been traded illegally in the past decade, making them one of the most trafficked mammals worldwide. At the 65th meeting of the CITES Standing Committee in July 2014, the CITES Secretariat stated, “illegal trade in pangolin specimens is escalating at an alarming rate” (SC65 Doc. 27), and gave a number of examples of seizures of large pangolin shipments including 10 tons of frozen pangolins on a Chinese fishing vessel that ran aground while returning to China from Malaysia.
Pangolins in general do not thrive in captivity, and their slow reproductive rate and low natural population density in the wild suggest that current trade levels are unsustainable. Prior to the uplisting of all pangolin species to Appendix I, Asian pangolin populations became increasingly hard to find even with a zero export quota in place, and so traders turned to the African pangolin species to meet market demand. This put the African species under additional pressure from local and regional demand for bushmeat and other traditional uses. While live and whole dead specimens usually can be identified to the species level based on size, number of scales, and other morphological characteristics, commonly traded non-living specimens, such as scales and meat, are difficult for non-experts to identify to the species level, which complicated enforcement.
First Pangolin Range States Meeting Co-hosted by Vietnam, the United States, and Humane Society International, June 24-26, 2015
Delegates from African and Asian pangolin range countries joined together for the first time to develop a unified conservation action plan to protect pangolins at the First Pangolin Range States Meeting. The governments of Vietnam and the United States co-hosted the meeting, which was organized and facilitated by Humane Society International.
Pangolins live in 48 countries: 17 Asian countries: Bangladesh, Bhutan, Brunei Darussalam, Cambodia, China, India, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, Nepal, Pakistan, Philippines, Singapore, Sri Lanka, Thailand, Vietnam. 31 African countries: Angola, Benin, Botswana, Cameroon, Central African Republic, Chad, Congo, Côte d'Ivoire, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Equatorial Guinea, Gabon, Ghana, Guinea, Guinea-Bissau, Kenya, Liberia, Malawi, Mozambique, Namibia, Nigeria, Senegal, Sierra Leone, Rwanda, South Africa, South Sudan, Swaziland, Tanzania, Togo, Uganda, Zambia, Zimbabwe.
Pangolins perform important ecological roles such as regulating insect populations. It has been estimated that an adult can consume more than 70 million insects annually. Pangolins also excavate deep burrows for sleeping and nesting. Burrowing animals are sometimes referred to as “ecosystem engineers” as their burrows may be used by other species; for example new research shows that giant armadillos, South American mammals that fulfill a similar ecological niche to ground pangolins, dig burrows that are used for shelter by at least 25 other species.
Pangolin range states, government wildlife and enforcement agencies, non-governmental organizations and pangolin experts met to present and discuss the latest pangolin population and international trade information in order to respond to CITES-prescribed calls for information and action. The action plan addresses conservation, management and enforcement issues to protect pangolins against over-exploitation as a result of trafficking and unsustainable legal trade. Watch a video statement welcoming delegates to the meeting from CITES Secretary-General Mr. John E. Scanlon. Read his full remarks at the CITES website.
Delegates from the United States as well as the following pangolin range states attended the meeting:
- Asian range states: Bangladesh, Bhutan, Brunei Darussalam, Burma, Cambodia, China, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Nepal, Pakistan, the Philippines, Thailand, and Vietnam.
- African range states: Botswana, Cameroon, Central African Republic, Côte d'Ivoire, Gabon, Ghana, Kenya, Liberia, Namibia, Nigeria, Senegal, South Africa, Tanzania, Togo, Uganda, Zambia, and Zimbabwe attended.
The First Pangolin Range States Meeting, conceptualized by Vietnam, was funded by a grant from the Service, with additional monetary and in-kind support provided by Humane Society International (HSI), International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW), Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), and Freeland Foundation. Experts from the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Species Survival Commission (SSC) Pangolin Specialist Group shared expertise on pangolins through presentations and working group sessions.
Working group recommendations were reported to the CITES Inter-sessional Pangolin Working Group for their consideration leading up to the 66th meeting of the CITES Standing Committee in Geneva (Switzerland), 11-15 January 2016. Click here to view working group recommendations.
Presentations from the meeting can be found at our archive page.
Congo Basin Forest Partnership (CBFP) Roundtable Discussion on Pangolin Conservation in Central Africa, June 16, 2015
USFWS organized an informal technical roundtable discussion with partners interested in pangolin conservation in Yaoundé, Cameroon, as a side event to the 2015 Congo Basin Forest Partnership (CBFP) meeting. Thirty-five participants gathered to exchange information on pangolin priority areas and current pangolin conservation activities, discuss future plans and funding opportunities for Central African pangolin conservation initiatives, and compile information in preparation for the First Pangolin Range States Meeting in Vietnam. Learn more about funding opportunities for international wildlife conservation projects at our Grants webpage.
In collaboration with the Zoological Society of London, USFWS launched the MENTOR-POP (Progress on Pangolins) Fellowship Program in 2016. Based in Yaoundé, Cameroon, this 18-month program is developing a transdisciplinary team of nine early career Central African and Asian conservation practitioners to champion the conservation of pangolins in Central Africa. All three pangolin species found in Central Africa are threatened by poaching and trafficking for the commercial bushmeat market and to meet the international demand for their scales and meat, as well as by habitat loss. The MENTOR-POP Fellows are currently implementing projects on field assessment, law enforcement, and demand reduction. Collaborating with governments, non-governmental organizations, universities, and local communities, the Fellows are gaining valuable insights into threats to pangolins while also expanding their professional networks to prepare for careers beyond the program.
The International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Species Survival Commission (SSC) Pangolin Specialist Group (PangolinSG) is also working to conserve pangolins; visit their website and the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species for more information.