The scaly anteaters native to Asia and Africa were originally blamed for transmitting COVID-19 to humans. DW takes a look at the critically endangered creatures that are susceptible to coronaviruses and trafficking.
What is a pangolin?
Despite appearances these animals aren’t reptiles, as many people believe. In fact, they are the world’s only scaly mammal — hence their other name, scaly anteaters. The creatures can grow to up to a meter in length, or around 3 feet. Eight species can be found living across parts of Asia and Africa.
The word “pangolin” is thought to be derived from the Malay word for “one who rolls up” — and that is exactly what they do. The solitary pangolin typically balls itself up when sleeping or for protection, and its keratin scales act as armor. The scaly creatures are nocturnal animals, and live in burrows or hollow tree trunks. They eat ants and other insects and only meet other pangolins to mate.
All pangolin species are critically endangered — mainly due to poaching and deforestation, which threatens their habitats. The World Wildlife Fund has called them “one of the most trafficked animals.” Pangolin scales are prized for traditional medicine in countries like China and Vietnam. On a single day in 2017, 400 kilos (880 pounds) of trafficked scales were seized entering Malaysia from Ghana.
Pangolin meat is considered a delicacy in some Asian countries. Because numbers there are decreasing, pangolins are increasingly being smuggled from Africa to Asia. Their scales can fetch several thousand US dollars per kilo on the black market. It’s estimated that 1 million pangolins were trafficked in the last decade alone. Many animals die from stress and exhaustion along the way.
Human consumption of pangolin meat became a global issue in early 2020 when it was suggested that the SARS-CoV-2 virus had jumped from the creatures to humans. While pangolins are also susceptible to coronaviruses, most researchers now believe that COVID-19 probably originated in bats. Nevertheless, the ongoing pandemic has highlighted the dangers of consuming wild meat and virus transmission.
Hope for the future
Despite their endangered status, some researchers are optimistic about ongoing conservation efforts. A December 2020 study showed that one species, the Philippine pangolin, may have a shot at bouncing back as the population has slightly increased in recent years. Clampdowns on smugglers have also increased. In China, it’s now illegal to use pangolin parts for medical purposes.