World Pangolin Day: Everything you need to know about pangolins (including where to spot them)

Tough on the outside, soft on the inside, the scaly pangolin is one of the planet's most enigmatic creatures. Sightings in the wild are very rare, but they are possible...

5 mins

World Pangolin Day is on Saturday 18 February in 2023, and we're celebrating (and spreading awareness) by answering the most important and interesting questions about this wonderful, quirky creature. Here's everything you need to know about pangolins...

What is a pangolin?

A baby Indian pangolin (Shutterstock)

A baby Indian pangolin (Shutterstock)

The incredibly cute pangolin is the only mammal in the world to be completely covered in scales.

The scales form a tough, armour clad ball when pangolins curl up when attacked and this, along with a evil-smelling spray emitted from their anal glands, is enough to deter most predators in the wild. 

Sadly, it is not enough to deter human poachers, who simply pick up the ‘ball’ and carry the pangolin away to be sold as bush meat. Often, they are smuggled to Vietnam or China, where the highly-prized scales are said to cure all kinds of ailments.

What do pangolins eat?

A pangolin digging for ants (Shutterstock)

A pangolin digging for ants (Shutterstock)

Pangolins are also known as Scaly Anteaters, which gives a clue as to their favourite dish. They eat ants by the kilo, as well as termites and lava.

They don’t have teeth, as such, just large curved claws for digging soil and gouging bark, and a long sticky tongue, often longer than their entire body, that they use to retrieve the tasty, insect morsels.

Where does the name 'pangolin' come from?

It originates from ‘penggulung,’ the Malay word for roller, the action it takes in self defence.

Where do pangolins live?

A pangolin hanging from a tree in South-East Asia (Shutterstock)

A pangolin hanging from a tree in South-East Asia (Shutterstock)

There are eight species of pangolin, spread across Africa and Asia. The Sunda pangolin, also known as the Malayan or Javan pangolin, can be found throughout South-East Asia.

Known locations include Brunei, Cambodia, Java, Sumatra, Borneo, the Lesser Sunda Islands, Laos, Malaysia, Singapore, Thailand, Myanmar and Vietnam. There are Indian and Chinese species, too.

Four species live in Africa: black-bellied, white-bellied, giant grand pangolin and Temminck's ground pangolin. They live across the whole of sub-Saharan Africa and can be found as far south as Botswana and the Kalahari.

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Did you know? Pangolins are the most trafficked mammal in the world.

Over 230,000 were killed between 2011 and 2013 alone - for their scales (pictured here) - with experts estimating that figure only represents 10% of the actual trade.

Can you still see pangolins in the wild?

Safari guide with a camera spots a pangolin in Africa (Shutterstock)

Safari guide with a camera spots a pangolin in Africa (Shutterstock)

Pangolins are nocturnal animals, so seeing one in the wild is tricky enough at the best of times.

Extensive poaching has decimated their numbers. And guides who are aware of where to find pangolin in the wild are reluctant to share the information in fear that those creatures may get poached, as well.

Having said that, there are some places, mostly in protected reserves, where it is still possible to see one of these endearing creatures in their natural habitat. And in 2023, researchers and conservationists have teamed up to spearhead Operation Pangolin, a new project that will develop fresh pangolin-specific monitoring methods and safeguarding efforts to prevent the illegal trafficking of these beloved mammals.

Seeing a pangolin remains one of planet Earth's real wildlife treats. Just ask British TV naturalist Chris Packham. He spent his entire life looking for a pangolin and when he finally encountered one in South Africa, it left him in a 'state of bewildered ecstasy'.

An endangered Temminck's Pangolin (Shutterstock)

An endangered Temminck's Pangolin (Shutterstock)

Where to (maybe) see pangolins in the wild

Africa represents your best chance of seeing a pangolin in the wild. The illegal trade is so intense in Asia, that only ones you’ll spot are in captivity. In Africa, however, a number of game reserves and lodges are actively working to protect pangolin.

Mateya Safari Lodge in Madikwe Game Reserve in South Africa is a good bet. So is the Samara Private Game Reserve in Karoo.

Tswalu Game Reserve in the Kalahari offer pangolin photography safaris, to help you capture your wild pangolin encounter perfectly.

In Kenya, pangolins are often spotted in Sala’s Camp in the Masai Mara. Namiri Plains in the Serengeti is the best place to spot them in Tanzania. And in Botswana, head to the Shinde Camp.

Did you know? Pangolins don’t have teeth.

They grind their food with small pebbles in their stomach, similar to a bird’s gizzard

What can I do to help the pangolin?

An African boy holding a pangolin aloft (Shutterstock)

An African boy holding a pangolin aloft (Shutterstock)

In 2016, a treaty of over 180 governments announced an agreement that would end all legal trade of pangolins and help protect the species from extinction.

However, illegal trade of the species continues. WWF, together with TRAFFIC, are working hard to protect species from wildlife crime, creating a campaign to try and reduce consumer demand for pangolin products.

Visit their website to see how you can help.

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