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Pangolin in Africa

The Pangolin belongs to the Pholidota order, they’re mammals and a member of the Manidae family Phataginus. The name ‘Pangolin’ comes from the Malay word “pengguling”, which means something that rolls up.

Numbers of the armoured creature are declining rapidly because they’re being hunted for their scales and meat. They’re also suffering due to heavy deforestation of their natural habitat. They are now the most trafficked mammal in the world.

Of the eight species of pangolin, four are listed as vulnerable (Phataginus tetradactyla, P. tricuspis, Smutsia gigantea, and S. temminckii). Two are listed as endangered (Manis crassicaudata and M. culionensis) and two species listed as critically endangered (M. pentadactyla and M. javanica) on the Red List of threastened Species by the (IUCN) International Union for Conservation of Nature.

Pangolin Man - Adrian Steirn

Appearance of the Pangolin

Pangolins range in size from 12 inches to 39 inches in length. Their heavily armoured shell gives an almost pre-historic appearance. These protective scales are made of keratin (similar to human fingernails). The only known mammal to have such protection. The hard plate like scales which overlap are soft on newly born pangolins. These scales harden up as the pangolin matures.

When threatened the pangolin curls up into a ball, protected by the overlapping scales, it tucks its head under its tail. The sharp scales offer an excellent deterrent to the most feared predator. As if that wasn’t protection enough, they give off a noxious chemical from the glands around the anus.

Pangolins have a very long tongue (similar to the giant anteater) and in the larger species can extend to 16 inches! They live on a diet of termites and ants which they catch using their long tongues. They’re insectivorous consuming around 4.9 ozs to 7.1 oz of insects per day

Most pangolins are nocturnal animals with a poor sense of vision but an excellent sense of smell. Therefore they rely heavily on scent and sound to hunt for insects. Pangolins have very powerful front claws which they use to dig into the ground, around tree roots and in vegetation to find food. They then use their tongues to probe the tunnels made by insects. Pangolins don’t have any teeth so coat the insects with saliva which makes them easier to digest. They also take in small stones which help grind up the insects in the pangolin’s stomach.


Pangolins live a solitary life and only pair to mate. African pangolin generally give birth to one youngster who they’ll look and after and raise for a couple of years.

Mating usually takes place once a year in the summer or autumn. The males urinate to mark their territory and the females locate them through their scent. The male can weigh up to 50% more than the female. If there’s competition between two males over who should mate with the female they fight it out using their strong tails.

Further facts and figures:

  • Gestation periods between 70–140 days
  • weight at birth -  80 to 450 g (2.8 to 15.9 oz)
  • length is 150 millimetres (5.9 in)
  • scales are soft and white at birth hardening quickly within a few days and darkening so they look more like those of an adult
  • while vulnerable, the mother will remain with her young wrapping her body around the baby is she senses danger. The young rides on the mother’s back when she leaves the burrow
  • weaning takes place at 3 months when the young will start to eat insects
  • A baby pangolin stays with it’s mother until the age of 2 years when it reaches sexual maturity
  • Pangolins have a 20 year lifespan in the wild. The oldest recorded pangolin in captivity lived for 19 years. It’s rare to find pangolin in zoos because captivity causes them depression, stress and malnutrition which amounts to early.

It was believed that the pangolin was a member of the Xenarthra family which includes sloths, anteaters and armadillos. But new evidence shows that they have a closer relationship to the diverse Carnivora order with bears, wolves and hyenas.

Saving the species

The pangolin may look like a tough anteater about to go into battle but it is in fact a mammal under threat. The species have evolved over 80 million years and today we have just eight Pangolin species still in existence in Africa and Asia.

Pangolin have suffered in their millions over the last 10 years. An estimated 100,000 pangolins are captured annually throughout Africa and Asia. Most are shipped China and Vietnam where they’re sold for their scales and meat. Consequently all eight pangolin species are on the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List of animals threatened with extinction. South Asia’s illegal trade of the animal has led to the pangolin being the most trafficked animal on the planet!

Finally… at a global wildlife summit in September 2016, the 182 nations of (Cites) The Convention on the International Trade in Endangered Species, unanimously agreed a total ban on international trade on all species.

Your best chance of spotting Pangolins on safari

Find out more about Pangolins in Africa

Find out about CITES - Convention on Internatonal Trade in Endangered Species

More about the pangolin on Wikipedia

Pangolin images courtesy Adrian Steirn Photographer and Film maker.

More about Adrian Steirn

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