Chinese officials recently intercepted a record-breaking illegal shipment in Shanghai: Nearly 3.5 tons of pangolin scales were found hidden inside a ship carrying Nigerian wood products. Officials estimate that as many as 7,500 animals could have been slaughtered to produce the scales, and believe that the suspects have been trafficking pangolin scales from Africa to China since 2015.
You’re probably having one of two reactions right now. You’re either furious and heartbroken over the tenuous fate of the poor pangolin, or you’re trying to remember what the heck a pangolin is and why you should care.
Pangolins are worth getting to know, because they’re all kinds of weird. Here’s a quick rundown:
1. They’re the only mammals with scales
Think the platypus is the weirdest mammal in the bunch? The pangolin gives it a run for its money. Pangolins (of which there are eight species, half in Africa and half in Asia) are the only living mammals covered in true scales.
2. Those scales will mess you up
The scales aren’t made of anything exotic, just the same protein (keratin) that makes up human skin and nails. But their back edges are razor sharp, so cuddling a pangolin is less fun than it looks. They also have very sharp claws (that they use for burrowing and for digging up ants to eat) and they produce a nasty-smelling, skunk-like acid from butt glands when they get scared. Probably not the best house pet, even though they’re more closely related to cats than to anteaters.
3. They may be sharp and stinky, but they’re actually pretty helpless
A pangolin’s only real recourse against predators is to roll up into a razor-sharp ball (their name actually comes from the Malay word for “rolling up”) and whip their scaly tail around. It’s enough to deter a few big cats, but the artichoke-like animals are far from aggressive. They’re also mostly blind. And unfortunately, a careful human can scoop a balled-up pangolin into a sack with ease—so their main defense mechanism actually makes them even more vulnerable to poaching.
4. Their tongues are insane
Pangolins don’t have any teeth, but they have tongues that can extend longer than the length of their roughly cat-sized bodies. A whole 16 inches longer, in some cases. These long tongues actually start deep in the chest cavity.
6. They’re considered the world’s most hunted animal
China’s recent poaching bust is troubling, but not surprising. Pangolins are hunted for bushmeat in Africa, but they’re considered a powerful medicinal ingredient in parts of East Asia. Eating their ground up scales is no different, chemically speaking, from chewing on your own fingernails (and hey, your source is fresher). But the scales, as well as pangolin meat and blood, are believed to have medicinal properties. Even pangolin fetuses are considered a delicacy.
This demand has made pangolin poaching a tempting business. Chinese media reports that the scales can go for $700 a kilogram (more than $300 a pound) on the black market. The most recently seized shipment could have fetched over $2 million at that rate.
The International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) classifies pangolins as the most widely traded wild mammal on the planet. It estimates that over a million animals have been killed by the poaching market in the past decade, perhaps driving populations down by as much as 80 percent. And that rate of decline could continue.
7. It’s hard to know how many are left
Most pangolins are nocturnal. They’re also shy, lonesome creatures, so researchers don’t have particularly good data on their lifespans or their current population counts. It’s clear that all 8 species are in steep decline, facing extinction. But we may not know how bad things have gotten for these lil pinecone dinosaurs until it’s too late.
8. Is all hope lost?
The pangolin meat trade is positively booming, as evidenced by the shipment found in China earlier this month. But while their meat is no doubt still available around the world, the pangolin does have more protection than it did this time last year. In September, pangolins were finally added to Appendix I of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES). Their former status as Appendix II critters allowed for limited international trade, but the new designation means that member countries will not allow any trade of the animals.
A CITES designation isn’t everything—after all, poachers continue to traffic in the horns of protected rhinos and elephants—but it’s a start. The ban encourages the kinds of crack-downs that catch massive shipments like the one found in China. But it also drives up the price of black market scales and meat—which encourages poachers to work even harder. Saving pangolins will be no small feat, so we’d best enjoy these delightful animals while we can.