Doesn’t ring a bell? You’d be forgiven. Hardly anyone sees them in Southern Africa. They are nocturnal or crepuscular mammals that survive off eating ants. They have no teeth; their tail, body and head seem to merge into one; they can’t run and they roll themselves up into a ball when they feel the situations is getting dodgy. It is also an animal can be compared quite comprehensively to the rhinoceros.
So why has no one heard about the pangolin? And what is so remarkable about this little mammal weighing a maximum of just 12 kilogrammes to be compared to the fierce and majestic rhino?
Pangolins exist in Africa and Asia, much like rhinos. Tree dwelling pangolins are more prominent in Indonesia, China and South East Asia, while ground pangolins live in Africa. Pangolins and rhinos have few natural predators – not much can penetrated their thick outer layers. The most telling comparison however is what can kill them and why they are being killed.
For the rhinos it is their horn. For pangolins it is their scales. Both scales and horns are illegally poached and traded as traditional medicines and aphrodisiacs. The main market for these commodities is South-East Asia, and the business is growing significantly.
The rhinos and the pangolins share one more common characteristic – their only defence mechanism is also their one-way ticket to extinction. What separates the pangolins from the rhinos is that the pangolins are going that way without as much fanfare – and thus much faster.
In December 2012, Chinese customs officials seized 9 tons of pangolin pieces, comprising 2, 032 frozen individual animals and 325 kg of pangolin scales. This one seizure comprises of more poached individual animals than the number of rhinos poached in South Africa during the last 20 years!
What makes this seizure even more worrying is that while conservationists in Asia and Africa have a fairly accurate idea of how many rhinos exist, there are no such available data for pangolins. A recent survey conduct by an Ivy League researcher conducted in rural Namibia, once though to hold viable populations of pangolins, found that while many farmers knew what a pangolin was, they could not recall seeing one in the last 15 years, giving an indication that pangolin population are dropping drastically.
There is no telling how detrimental the pangolin trade is to the species. The lack of scientific data is due to two factors: the difficulty in observing the pangolins; and the lack of interest in the creatures beyond their commercial value.
The pangolins drew the short straw when it came to society deciding which animals it would idolize. This brings the question of what society deems is “worth saving”. The main problem I have here is not that the pangolins are being poached – rhinos, tigers and elephants share my sympathies. It is the fact that they are being killed in outrageously high quantities without the attention they deserve.
Are the pangolins just not newsworthy? A possibility. Cape vultures, Wild dogs, Riverine rabbits and Geometric tortoises also fall into this bracket. While rhinos face extinction in a storm of news coverage, these animals are disappearing very quietly.
The danger lies in deciding which creatures society will make an effort to conserve. If pangolins and rhinos are poached to extinction for almost identical reason, and society chooses to focus on one but not the other, we must ask ourselves to consider the real reasons for us supporting an anti-poaching initiative. Is it because we like the animal being poached? Is it because we don’t like the people behind the poaching? Or is it all a bit fuzzy, but it just happens to be easier to be anti-rhino poaching because there’s already a bandwagon waiting?
If this is the prevailing attitude, we’ve already lost the entire conservation cause. Taking a stand for something is not easy. It takes consistency, commitment and discipline. Society cannot, without a cloudy conscious, choose to defend one and not the other if the same injustices are being suffered by both.
Cape vulture – perceived threat to livestock
Riverine rabbit – severe habitat loss