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Pangolins: The Only Mammal with Scales

Art by Jake Upton

By Skylar Ward

When I was a junior in high school I lived in Singapore, an island in SouthEast Asia. I was enrolled in a zoology course where we learned about pangolins, the world’s most trafficked mammal. I immediately fell in love with this species and set out to learn everything I could about them. Pangolins are the only mammals with scales, which makes them extremely valuable in certain Asian countries, where they are sold for medical use.

Alex Aisher, a research associate at the University of Sussex, writes about the loss of pangolin populations in his article, “Scarcity, Alterity and Value: Decline of the Pangolin, the World’s Most Trafficked Mammal”. There are eight different species of pangolins, which all inhabit different parts of Africa and SouthEast Asia, and vary in size. These nocturnal animals have long tails which they use to hang from trees, and long tongues which they use to capture small insects for food. In the wild, pangolins’ scales provide an important form of protection from predators. When in danger, pangolins will roll into a ball so that all of their skin is covered with their scales. This is an extremely effective defense mechanism, and their scales are so tough that even lions’ claws can’t break through them.

The root of the trafficking problem with pangolins is the value of their scales and meat. In China, pangolin scales (although illegal to sell) are extremely popular due to their medicinal value. The scales are crushed up into a powder, and are supposed to cure a variety of illnesses, including cancer and infertility. Pangolin scales can be sold for a large amount of money, and their illegal trade unfortunately contributes a great deal to China’s economy. Although scales are supposed to help cure ailments, their positive effects have never been proven, and may have been exaggerated over the years. Their meat is viewed as a delicacy in China, usually served in a soup, and only during celebratory meals, such as weddings or graduations due to the price. The meat is expensive and is sometimes used as a display of wealth. Because of this, pangolin soup has become a symbol of the high-class, which only exacerbates the trafficking problem as people try to one up each other.

Pangolins are exceptionally shy and solitary creatures, which makes trafficking them easy, but also makes keeping them in captivity especially difficult. As previously mentioned, when pangolins are in danger or scared, they will roll up in a tight ball to protect themselves. For predators like lions, this is a very successful tactic, but for predators like humans, it is a ridiculously bad instinct. When humans approach them, instead of running away, pangolins just roll into a ball and stay there. This makes it absurdly easy for people to pick pangolins up and traffick them to other countries. Usually for animals this badly threatened, a breeding program would be introduced in captivity, but with pangolins that isn’t really an option. The shy nature of pangolins makes it impossible for them to be around humans without getting stressed, which can cause them to die if they are exposed to a stressful situation for too long. Additionally, pangolins don’t like being around too many other pangolins. This means that, if in captivity, their enclosures must be big enough so that they don’t bump into each other too often. For these reasons, starting a captive breeding program is hugely impractical, complicating conservation initiatives.

After I learned about the many problem’s pangolins face, I was motivated to try to help. According to the World Wildlife Organization, there were around one million pangolins trafficked in the last ten years, making them the world’s most trafficked mammal. My junior year of high school, I started a project educating students about pangolins and what we could do to help, raised over three thousand dollars for the IUCN Pangolin Specialist Group, and even got to work with Dr. Helen Nash, a pangolin researcher at the National University of Singapore. I learned an enormous amount about pangolins and the animal science field. I enjoyed working on the project more than anything I’d done in school, and it helped me realize that I wanted to pursue animal science as my career. I still care about pangolins tremendously and will be forever grateful to them for starting my future.


Aisher, A. (2016). Scarcity, Alterity and Value: Decline of the Pangolin, the World's Most Trafficked Mammal. Conservation and Society, 14(4), 317-329.

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