June 2021

Overlapping scales

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Overlapping scales

Kirsten Tinkler
By Kirsten Tinkler
Field Guide

Imagine an ancient animal covered in hard armour-like scales, with long pincer-like claws at the end of strong forearms capable of breaking open the concrete-like fortresses of termite mounds. The pangolin is one of the most unique and elusive creatures. With no teeth, they use their long sticky tongue to collect ants and termites, digesting them in their specially adapted spiny stomachs. A pangolin can digest around 70 million insects a year - talk about pest control! Just like birds, they swallow stones to help with the digestive process in their stomach. 

There are eight different types of pangolin in the world, four in Africa and four in Asia. 

African species: Black-bellied pangolin (Phataginus tetradactyla), white-bellied pangolin (Phataginus tricuspis), giant ground pangolin (Smutsia gigantea) and Temminck's ground pangolin (Smutsia temminckii).

Asian species: Indian pangolin (Manis crassicaudata), Philippine pangolin (Manis culionensis), Sunda pangolin (Manis javanica)and the Chinese pangolin (Manis pentadactyla).

Pangolins are extremely rare to see and I was very privileged to see my first ever pangolin this year at Singita. 

The earliest fossil for the pangolin dates back shortly after the extinction of the dinosaurs, during the Eocene epoch. Although pangolins are covered in scales, they are actually mammals and use their scales for defence and protection. The ground pangolin’s name originates from the Malay word ‘pengguling’ meaning ‘rolling over’, referring to its practice of curling up into a ball. When threatened, this terrestrial traveller will quickly curl up, protecting its soft underparts and exposing a virtually impenetrable armoured shell. Any predator would need to watch out for the sharp cutting scales that may catch a muzzle or paw if met between them. 

It is heart breaking to think that the tough overlapping scales protecting these extraordinary creatures is what they are captured and killed for. All pangolins in the world are now either vulnerable, endangered or critically endangered. “More than one million pangolins were poached over ten years, with an estimated 195,000 trafficked in 2019 for their scales alone.” (WWF). This figure is extremely scary, and it’s not only their scales that are being trafficked. Pangolin skin is also used to make leather products and their meat eaten as a delicacy. With these in such high demand, the reality is that it is inevitable that the pangolin species will be brought to the brink of extinction. To make a difference and to find out more, visit the World Wildlife Fund website at: https://www.worldwildlife.org/pages/save-the-pangolins