A white-scaled baby pangolin curls around it's mother back

Baby pangolins have soft, white scales which harden and turn brown after a few days © Paul Hilton Photography

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Museum collections show how pangolin populations have shrunk

Pangolins are one of the most trafficked mammals in the world and have become locally extinct in some areas.

Museum scientists are exploring past and present pangolin population distributions to help with future conservation work.

Pangolins are the only mammals in the world that are covered in scales.

These scales are made up of keratin - the same substance as our hair and nails - and cover the entire body apart from the forehead, belly and inner side legs.

When under threat, pangolins curl into tight balls. The tough, overlapping scales shield them against the sharp teeth and claws of lions, tigers and leopards. But while the sharp-edged scales offer protection from predators in the wild, pangolins are helpless against humans.

These slow-moving, gentle creatures are seriously threatened by poaching and have become one of the most highly traded mammals on global black markets.

Three lions play with a balled-up pangolin

A pangolin curls into a protective ball as lion cubs play with it © Shutterstock

Research on pangolin population and distribution

It is difficult to protect endangered animals without knowing exactly where they live and how their population spread has changed over time.

This is where the Museum's historic collections can help with conservation.

Emily Buckingham, a master's student at the Museum, is tracking the distribution of pangolins throughout history and the present day.

'I enjoy working with geographical information and looking at historical trends,' says Emily. 'I also love pangolins, so combining the two and working with the Museum collections came together nicely.'

Emily has studied the pangolin specimens from the Museum's world-class mammal collection. Her work explores the probable locations of past pangolin populations and assesses how reliable the records are of where these animals have lived over the years.

For example, some records state where pangolins were imported from as opposed to where they were actually found. This makes it difficult to find and compare past populations to current ones and see the trends over time.

Confirming data on pangolin population and distribution allows scientists to see the pressures on different species, populations and areas.

'Out of the 270 specimens in the Museum's collection, I geo-referenced 227, as well as some from the Global Biodiversity Information Facility,' says Emily. 'This helps us identify which species have been easily accessible by poachers and which ones have been more targeted.'

Deforestation and water pollution also contribute to the ongoing decline of pangolins.

'The two species in southeast Asia are categorised as critically endangered by the IUCN and this area has experienced lots of deforestation and river degradation over the years,' explains Emily.

'Unless these habitats are protected, their distribution is likely going to continue to shrink.'

The new and accurate information will feed into future pangolin research and conservation.

Why are pangolins one of the most trafficked mammals in the world?

There are eight species of pangolins: four in Asia and four in Africa.

In China, Vietnam and other parts of southeast Asia, pangolin meat is considered a delicacy. The high price and rarity signals wealth and elevates one's social status.

In parts of Africa, it is consumed as bush meat. It is estimated that at least 400,000 pangolins are hunted and eaten in central Africa each year alone.

Pangolin scales, which account for 20% of the animal's weight, are used in parts of Asia for a wide array of unproven medicines. It is incorrectly thought that the scales help to cure cancer, asthma, anxiety and ailments such as nose bleeds and blood clots.

The scales are also used to cater to some traditional beliefs. For example, the smoke from burnt scales is expected to keep cattle healthy, burying scales under the front door of a love interest is thought to elicit reciprocation, and when used in rituals, it is believed to provide protection from witchcraft and evil spirits.

Brown pangolin scales

Confiscated pangolin scales. Pangolins can go unnoticed at trade borders as they are usually stripped of their scales and mixed with frozen fish, making them difficult to spot. © Kenneth Cameron/wiki (CC BY 2.0)

In 2017, a global ban on all commercial trading of pangolins came into effect. Despite this, illegal trading of the mammals remains high - one kilogramme of pangolin scales can be sold for nearly £500.

The demands for scales has almost decimated the four Asian species, resulting in poachers turning to the four remaining African species.

'In the past, it was the Asiatic species that were being trafficked heavily,' says Emily. 'But because they have become more vulnerable or endangered over the decades, the focus has now turned to exploit the African species.'

Pangolins are solitary creatures. They only meet to mate and produce litters of between one and three offspring every two years.

With new transit routes being formed between Africa and China, the animals are being hunted and exported faster than they can reproduce.

A pangolin flicks out it's long, thin tongue

Pangolins can eat up to 70 million insects a year, keeping the ant and termite population in balance © US Fish and Wildlife Service/Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

Protecting the pangolins is a challenge

Pangolins are particular about the type of insects they eat and stick to only a few species, even when other invertebrates are available.

Many attempts have been made at captive breeding, but their selective diet and reliance on wide-ranging habitats makes it challenging.

Pangolins also have a poor immune system due to a genetic dysfunction, and are susceptible to diseases such as pneumonia when in captivity. This causes complications and often leads to an early death.

Rescued pangolins are prone to parasites such as intestinal worms, making it harder to rehabilitate them and release them back into the wild.

But all is not lost. The IUCN Red List was updated in 2019, and although it confirmed that all eight species are threatened with extinction, the data suggests that up-to-date information from several conservation organisations was used, resulting in an increased focus on pangolins.

This will help to secure desperately needed long-term care for pangolins, including educating the public, raising awareness and training border patrols to recognise pangolin smuggling much quicker.

Emily says, 'There's definitely more research that can be done on saving the pangolins from extinction and I'm quite keen on adding to that.'

It is hoped that research like Emily's will help conservation organisations to know which populations are most at risk, and which they should be helping first.

While pangolins are still around, there is a chance that we can protect the future of these unique mammals.