Pause for Pangolins

There’s no other mammal like them. Pangolin, the spiny anteater. They look like dinosaurs reduced to the size of domestic cats, miniature ankylosaurs with armored plates (scales) made of keratin instead of bone with sharp points. They may soon join the big reptiles in extinction.

Today is declared World Pangolin Day by those who care about their fate. I read about them before doing this tiny bit to promote their cause.

spiny anteater
Pangolin (courtesy of Pixabay)

These shy, nocturnal animals are found across Asia and in Africa. Eight species in all. Insectivores all. They have a long, sticky tongue for licking up their strict diet of ants and termites, and lacking teeth they grind insect cuticles with stones in their stomach. Evidently capable of long lives, they evolved a slow rate of breeding which makes it hard to restore a depleted population.  Captive breeding is not successful.

Besides the threat of habitat loss from forest clearance, they are scooped out of the wild by poachers on both continents, more trafficked than any other wild mammal. In Africa they are bush meat and in Asia an expensive delicacy for the wealthy while the scales are used in traditional Chinese medicine. According to Wildlife Justice, 8 tonnes of pangolin scales from about 14,000 pangolins and worth HK$ 42M on the illegal market were seized in Hong Kong in 2019 alone. An estimated one million animals have been illegally traded in recent years. Unsustainable. The scales that deter natural predators when they roll up in a ball like a hedgehog are no defense against human plunderers.

They are now in the news for another reason. Sold in Chinese markets where wild animals of various species are kept in adjacent cages, a proximity never encountered in nature, they are suspected vectors of the current coronavirus epidemic. If a zoonotic virus jumps species it may mutate in the new host, animal or human, and become more transmissible. Society didn’t learn the lesson of the SARS coronavirus of 2002 when civets in wildlife markets were the probable source of that epidemic.

There is a danger that pangolins will be demonized where human ignorance, profit and cruelty are really to blame. And yet, there are timid hopes that the Chinese authorities in trying to quench this epidemics will close wildlife markets and prosecute pangolin traffickers. Among so many threats and fears in the world, we take comfort in small hopes.

Next Post: My Neighbor’s Sugar Shack

By Roger Gosden

A British and American scientist specializing in reproduction & embryology whose career spanned from Cambridge to Cornell's Weill Medical College in NYC. He married Lucinda Veeck, the embryologist for the first successful IVF team in America. They retired to Virginia, where he became a master naturalist and writer affiliated with William & Mary.

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