The One Who Rolls Up: Pangolin

Valentine’s Day has just passed with all its lovey-dovey messages. But love is not only about humans to humans. In 2017 the Google Doodle for the day featured a little love story about pangolins!

Pangolins one may ask? What are they, and why were the stars for the day?

Pangolins are curious creatures. With their long tail, long snout and a body covered with scales, they are often thought of as reptiles. Pangolins, also known as Scaly Ant eaters are actually mammals. They belong to the taxonomic order Pholidota, meaning ‘scaled animals’, a group of unusual mammals with tough, protective keratin scales. Pangolins are the only scaled mammals on earth.  It is believed that the scales evolved as a means of protection. When threatened by big carnivores like lions or tigers, the pangolin usually curls into a tight ball, tucking its face under its tail. The overlapping sharp scales act as an armour protecting it from the predators. It is this ability to curl up into a ball that gives it the name Pangolin which comes from the Malay word pengguling, meaning “the one who rolls up”.

Pangolins have short legs with sharp claws which are effective for burrowing for shelter, as well as to get into ant and termite mounds. These form their primary diet, and also give it the name of Scaly Anteater. They have no teeth, but an unusually long and sticky tongue (up to 16 inches long) helps them to probe deep into the ant tunnels and termite mounds to retrieve their prey. They have poor eyesight, but a well-developed sense of smell and hearing which guides them when they come out, mainly at night.

The strange appearance and secretive nocturnal habits of the pangolin gave it a somewhat mythical association in some indigenous cultures, as well as a part in folk tales and legends. In Chinese legend pangolins are said to travel all around the world underground, and in the Cantonese language the name for pangolin translates to “the animal that digs through the mountain,” or Chun-shua-cap, which translates to ‘scaly hill-borer’.

Many indigenous African cultures have diverse beliefs associated with pangolins. Here is a delightful tale from a tribe in South Africa that tells how the pangolin came to be what it is today. 

Long long ago the pangolin did not have scales, and the pangolin did not eat ants. It had a thick coat of beautiful fur, and its favourite food was honey! The pangolin’s thick fur protected it from the bee stings when it raided beehives for honey. But the pangolin had a competitor for the honey. That was the honey badger whose thick skin was not as effective in warding off the bees as the pangolin’s fur. The bees were so harassed by the constant attacks from both these creatures that they called upon the Creator to protect them from the two honey raiders.

The Creator decided that the two would have a competition, and the one who proved to be the most cunning at the game would retain the privilege of getting its favourite food. 

Pangolin had long strong legs and sharp claws with which to open the hives, and a long tongue to lap up the honey. But it was also skilful enough so as not to do too much damage. The honey badger was in a hurry, and also clumsy, as a result of which he made quite a mess. It was a close competition. The honey badger realised that the pangolin’s biggest asset was its fur, and in jealously it began to plot about defeating the pangolin by unfair means.

One night as the pangolin slept, the honey badger stealthily poured honey over its coat with a trail leading to the nest of the fierce red ants. The army of ants attacked the sleeping pangolin and penetrated deep into its fur to get the honey. The pangolin was in great pain from the ant bites. Desperate for relief, it ran and rolled in the embers of a nearby bush fire until its fur was burnt away, leaving only sore and exposed skin. The pangolin lost its protection and could no longer raid bee hives, and the honey badger continued to do so, even though it had won by deceit. The Creator felt sorry for the pangolin and gave it another form of protection, an armour of tough overlapping scales, and also a new diet instead of honey—ants and termites. And so as the elders narrate, the pangolin got his scales and became an ant eater.  

Ironically, the very scales that the pangolin was given to provide protection have today become the cause of the greatest threat to this animal. This shy curious creature is the most trafficked animal in the world. Pangolins are heavily poached for their meat and scales which are in high demand in countries like China and Vietnam. Their meat is considered a delicacy and pangolin scales are used in traditional medicine and folk remedies, leading to huge illegal trade in pangolin skin, scales, and meat, which poses a grave threat to their very survival.

There are eight species of pangolins. The four species native to Asia–The Chinese, Sunda, Indian, and Philippine pangolins are listed by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) as critically endangered. The other four species which are native to Africa– the Giant Ground, Ground, White-bellied, and Black-bellied pangolins are all listed as vulnerable. According to a study reported on by BBC an estimated 100,000 pangolins are illegally taken from the wild every year across Africa and Asia. One million pangolins are believed to have been trafficked between 2000 and 2013 alone.

World Pangolin Day is celebrated on the third Saturday in February every year as an international attempt to raise awareness about these unique animals, and the precarious state that they are in. It aims to bring together stakeholders to help protect this unique species from extinction.

This Saturday, let us join the world to celebrate ‘the one who rolls up’. 

–Mamata

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