Pangolins: Luck Needs More Than Armor


What rhymes with mandolin and is compared to “a pine cone or globe artichoke” on wikipedia?

Oh yeah, it’s the pangolin.

pangolin 2

Africa Geographic Magazine ©Maria Diekmann

These mammals have A LOT going on: they’re the only ones with scales rather than hair, they give birth to a single offspring called a “pup” (AW), they climb trees, they dig burrows, they live in ecosystems alongside many of our favorite primates (chimpanzees, gorillas and orangutans) and they hurt us with their cuteness.



Here’s the scaly scoop: There are eight species across Asia and Africa. Pangolins are closely related to anteaters, and if ants aren’t your friends, the pangolin will be: one adult can eat over 70 million ants per year (a.k.a this years picnic must have). Their scales are made up of keratin, the same material human hair and finger nails are made of, though because of their arrangement and thickness of overlying calcium plating, they are highly effective in defense when in adorable rolly polly formation (especially against bewildered big cats like lions and leopards). Namibia’s Herero people believe that the pangolin provides great luck, though the ways in which their “luck” is obtained – burning and eating their flesh or carrying their tongues in your pocket – may leave pangolins more in what one would consider the unlucky category.

Before 2015, of the eight species, four living in Asia and two living in Africa, four were listed as vulnerable (Phataginus tetradactyla, P. tricuspis, Smutsia gigantea, and S. temminckii), two were listed as endangered (Manis crassicaudata and M. cullonensis), and two were listed as critically endangered (M. pentadactyla and M. javanica), on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. Pangolins are listed on Appendix II of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) allowing for zero exports of Asian pangolins for individuals removed from the wild and traded for primarily commercial purposes, and many regions in Africa and Asia have domestic laws that ban the hunting and trading of these animals. Those are some strong defenses for this armored little animal, though it seems like they aren’t strong enough.

They are the most trafficked mammal in the world.

The IUCN SSC Pangolin Group has this to say about them: “Since 2000, it is estimated that up to one million pangolins have been taken from the wild for illegal trade globally.

Do you ever just feel like curling up into a ball and hiding from the world? The pangolin sure does.

Earlier in 2016, Indonesian government authorities seized 650 pangolins hidden in freezers to be sold on the black market. In June, 4.4 tons of pangolin scales were confiscated in Hong Kong having been trafficked from Cameroon. In July, officials in Hong Kong seized 10 tons of pangolin scales from Nigeria and Ghana. 

Imagine seeing the equivalency of a school bus of JUST SCALES in piles being ferried around the world for unremorseful consumers. This imagined school bus, a very real representation of extinction in action, represents thousands of once playful pangolins, each one murdered and used like a piece of material goods. The price of happening to be shy and rare, is their lives. 

Illustration by Sean Edgerton (more info at bottom of page)

Illustration by Sean Edgerton (more info at bottom of page)

Pangolin scales have been used to make coats, and can sell for over $3,000 a kilogram. Their scales are used in traditional medicine and as a sign of wealth. And the U.S. is not exempt from this horrendous and frightening species massacre: more than 26,000 pangolin products were imported in the United States between 2004 and 2013. For this reason Sir David Attenborough named the Sunda pangolin as one of his ten favorite species he would ‘save’ from extinction.

Luckily, pangolin luck may be more than myth and the species is finally being provided the animal protection army it deserves. This year at the World Conservation Congress (where the IUCN meets every 4 years to discuss, reflect and debate solutions for conservation science and action) in Honolulu, Hawaii, pangolins are getting some major love. In 2015, IFAW, with a coalition of animal conservation organizations, including JGI, drafted and circulated a resolution confirming the alarming condition of pangolin species, asking the U.S. government to back strengthened international protection and to list all eight species as Endangered under the Endangered Species Act.  IUCN passed the motion ahead of the congress and as the World Conservation Congress begins, pangolin pride is palpable. IFAW will be holding the Pangolin Conservation Reception in partnership with the U.S. State Dept., NRDC and HSI, with our own honorary IFAW Board Member Jane Goodall speaking out in the name of pangies everywhere. Additionally, a panel titled  Pangolins in Peril: How to save the most illegally traded mammal in the world will take place on Saturday 9/3 at the congress.

David Brossard via Flickr

David Brossard via Flickr

In the Neverending Story, a character named Falkor, who happens to be what is considered a “luck dragon,” tells the protagonist Sebastian, who faces insurmountable trials with the impending destruction of their fantasy world, to “Never give up, and good luck will find you.” Pangolins have always reminded me of Falkor, partially related to their strange scaly and mystical form, and partially because of the myths surrounding them about their transformative powers. Fantastical creatures appearing unexpectedly, surviving through a combination of luck and amazing armored adaptation.

I do not believe the pangolin will give up, and we must not give up on the pangolin.

Pangolin Illustration by:
Sean Vidal Edgerton |

About Author

Ashley Sullivan is the Director of Storytelling & Marketing for Communications & Partnerships at the Jane Goodall Institute USA, where she works to connect individuals with Dr. Jane Goodall's vision, and the JGI mission to create a better world for all by protecting the interconnections between people, other animals, and the environment. Ashley graduated Stony Brook University with a Bachelor's Degree in Anthropology and a minor in Biology, and is pursuing a Master's of Science in Environmental Science & Policy at Johns Hopkins University with a focus on Environmental Justice. Originally from Brooklyn, New York, now a D.C. resident, she has a varied background including 10+ years of expert communications and digital marketing in the social and environmental non-profit sector. Her intersectional approach to this work has been shaped by a holistic world-view, having traveled to Madagascar and Ecuador for conservation research projects, leading communications for youth social justice filmmaking organizations, and as a part of several professional groups advancing Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion in environmental spaces including Greens REALIGN. With skills ranging from conservation fieldwork, policy and advocacy campaigns, strategic communications, art, digital media, and design, Ashley believes in sharing information to empower and in the magic of storytelling to transform hearts and minds. Through growing understanding, empathy, and justice, she is igniting positive change to create that better, more equitable world, every day.