The most heavily trafficked mammal in the world is one you’ve probably never heard of. Pangolins, also known as scaly anteaters, are desired for their scales, which are commonly used in traditional medicine practices. Their meat is also considered a delicacy.
Up to 200,000 pangolins are taken from the wild every year from Asia and Africa. They are in particularly high demand in places like China and Vietnam.
Pangolins are also becoming popular in the United States, with their leather used to make products like bags, boots, and belts.
Due to its scales, the pangolin is often thought of as a reptile, but in reality, it is a mammal. It’s the only mammal known to be completely covered in scales. Its scales are made from keratin, the same protein found in the hair and fingernails of humans.
Pangolins use their scaly armor to protect themselves from predators. When they feel threatened, they curl up into a ball. Their tails also have sharp scales, which they can use to lash out for defense.
These animals are nocturnal and like to keep to themselves. Their diet primarily includes ants, termites, and larvae. One adult pangolin is estimated to be able to consume more than 70 million insects every year.
They don’t have any teeth, but their long, sticky tongues help them pick up their food from deep cavities in the ground. When fully extended, their tongues can reach half the lengths of their bodies.
Pangolins have poor vision, so they rely on their strong sense of smell to locate ant and termite nests. Their limbs are stout, with three long claws on each foot, making them well-adapted for digging burrows.
There are eight pangolin species in total. Four species live in Africa—the black-bellied pangolin, the white-bellied pangolin, the giant pangolin, and the ground pangolin. The four other species hail from Asia—the Chinese pangolin, the Indian pangolin, the Philippine pangolin, and the Sunda pangolin.