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What is a Pangolin?

Pangolin Gir Forest India (c) Sandip Kumar
Pangolin in Gir Forest India (c) Sandip Kumar

There are 8 species of pangolin, four of which are found in Asia and another four in Africa. They are placental nocturnal mammals, commonly known as the scaly anteaters.

The Asian species can be differentiated from their African counterparts by the presence of hair found between their scales. The black-bellied or long-tailed African pangolin is the smallest of the species, usually weighing around 2 to 3kg. The giant ground pangolin, also an African species, is the largest of the pangolins and usually weighs up to 35kg.

How are pangolins classified?

Living things are organised into different groups based on their physical and genetic characteristics. Animals that are similar are grouped together. This is called classification.

Class: Mammalia (mammals)

Order: Pholidota

Family: Manidae

ASIAN species:

Manis crassicaudata (Indian or thick-tailed pangolin)

Manis pentadactyla (Chinese or Formosan pangolin)

Manis javanica (Malayan or Sunda pangolin)

Manis culionensis (Palawan or Philippine pangolin)

AFRICAN species:

Smutsia gigantea (giant ground pangolin)

Smutsia temmincki (Cape or Temminck’s ground pangolin)

Phataginus tricuspis (tree or African white-bellied pangolin)

Uromanis tetradactyla (long-tailed or black-bellied pangolin)



Pangolins inhabit a wide range of environments across Asia and Africa, with habitats overlapping in some cases. In Asia their habitat ranges as far west as Pakistan, and as far north as Nepal and the outskirts of the Himalayan Mountains. In the south they range as far as the southern tip of Indonesia.

The African white-bellied pangolin is found throughout central and western Africa, overlapping with that of the black-bellied pangolin, with the former species preferring more forested areas. The Cape pangolin is the only species found in southern Africa.


Pangolins occupy a wide range of habitats; they can be found in sub-tropical and tropical forests, thick bush, grasslands, dry woodlands, open savannah regions and even in agricultural areas like rubber plantations.


Their diet consists primarily of insects such as ants and termites, which is where their nickname ‘scaly anteaters’ comes from. They can consume more than 70 million ants in one year.


Pangolins are the only mammals known to have plate-like scales. When threatened, they are able to roll up into a ball, forming an armoured exterior. The scales are made of keratin (the same protein that makes up human hair and nails), which hardens as the pangolins reach maturity. Similar to skunks, pangolins can secrete a foul smelling odour from the glands near their anus, which they use to mark their territory. Unlike skunks however, they are not able to spray the odour; the foul smelling acid is used as a deterrent from predators rather than as a defence.

Pangolins have poor eyesight, relying on their hearing and keen sense of smell to locate their prey at night. They have long, powerful, curved claws to tear open anthills or termite mounds and get to the insects inside. Pangolins have no teeth; they use their long, sticky and elongated tongue to retrieve the insects. The tongue is attached near their pelvis and last pair of ribs, and when fully extended is longer than the entire head and body. At rest the tongue retracts into a sheath deep in the chest cavity.


Although they are widely distributed geographically, the eight species share similar behaviours. They are nocturnal, shy and relatively slow moving mammals that protect themselves by rolling up into a tight ball. Some species, such as the long-tailed pangolin, are able to find shelter by climbing trees, while other species live in underground burrows.  

Females usually reach sexual maturity around one year of age. The gestation period depends on the species, but they all give birth to a single offspring. The young pangolin stays with its mother for around 3 to 4 months and grips onto its mother’s tail while foraging for insects. Pangolins are able to eat ants and termites once they are a month old.


Pangolins are under threat primarily from over exploitation as a result of poaching and illicit trade, but are also under threat from habitat destruction. The Asian species are largely under threat from illegal hunting and trade to meet the demand for their meat and scales for traditional medicines in Asia, primarily in China and Vietnam. The population decline of Asian pangolins is believed to have led to the African species coming under increasing threat from intercontinental trade. Adding to this threat are the growing economic ties between Africa and Asia and the increasing profitability of the trade. The African species are also threatened from hunting due to their consumption in west, central and southern Africa.

Lack of sufficient information regarding both population status and the illegal trade in pangolins are serious challenges to addressing their conservation. As with other species traded illegally, seizures of pangolin parts and bodies are thought to be just a small fraction of the actual trade taking place. 

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