Pangolins: one of the world's most trafficked mammals

Discover the desperate story of these threatened creatures.

The Natural History Museum

PangolinThe Natural History Museum

Pangolins, the world's only scaly mammals, are one of the most trafficked animals on Earth.

Ground pangolinThe Natural History Museum

The demand for their scales is highest in Asia, where they are used in traditional medicines or eaten as a delicacy. Poachers responding to this demand have depleted wild populations in Asia and Africa, and the pangolin's future is uncertain.

It's more than a sad story of extinction. It's a story of the knock-on effects of the decline of a species, and a stark reminder of the interconnection between animals and their environments.

PangolinThe Natural History Museum

Pangolin life

Pangolins live a solitary, quiet existence in grasslands, rainforests and farm areas in Asia and sub-Saharan Africa. They only meet to mate, and females have litters of one to three offspring every two years.

Pangolin scalesThe Natural History Museum

Their main defence against predators is their set of hard, overlapping scales, which acts like a suit of armour.

Chinese pangolinThe Natural History Museum

Illegal products

Pangolin meat has been eaten in many countries for a long time. In parts of Africa , it is consumed as bushmeat. It is estimated that at least 400,000 pangolins are hunted and eaten in central Africa each year.

Ground pangolinThe Natural History Museum

Pangolins are also traded internationally because of the high prices they can fetch. In China, Vietnam and other parts of south-east Asia, pangolin meat is considered a delicacy and the high price and rarity signals wealth.

Ground pangolinThe Natural History Museum

Pangolin scales, which account for 20% of the animal's weight, are used in parts of Asia, the USA and elsewhere around the world for a variety of unproven medicines. It is incorrectly thought that the scales help to cure cancer, asthma, anxiety and ailments such as nose bleeds and blood clots.

Their scales are also used in some traditional practices. For example, it is incorrectly thought that the smoke from burnt scales keeps cattle healthy, that burying scales under the front door of a love interest will invite their attention, and that the scales can provide protection from witchcraft and evil spirits.

Pangolins have rarely been bred successfully, so populations will continue to fall if nothing is done to stop poachers and habitat destruction.

Long-tailed pangolinThe Natural History Museum

Natural pest controllers

Pangolins live on a diet of insects, and by devouring millions of them around crop plantations, these mammals are thought to play a role in protecting food supplies and reducing termite damage to human-made structures.

PangolinThe Natural History Museum

It is estimated that pangolins save millions of dollars each year in pest control, so if left to thrive they would benefit humans all over the world.

By Joe ScherschelLIFE Photo Collection

Hope for the pangolin
In June 2020, Chinese authorities took steps to protect the pangolin by removing its scales from the list of approved ingredients in traditional Chinese medicine.

Tree pangolinThe Natural History Museum

This follows on from a February 2020 ban on eating wildlife, in response to the Covid-19 pandemic. These new rulings will hopefully discourage the trafficking of pangolins to China for traditional medicine or food.

PangolinThe Natural History Museum

Global research is helping the plight of the pangolin. Pangolins feature in the Museum's collections, which are used by researchers from all over the world, and so they play a big role in global science.

Credits: Story

For more information and to book tickets to the exhibition, visit the Museum's website.

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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