World Pangolin Day

It was the second day of our Tanzanian wildlife safari when our grandson ran into our tent, excited and out of breath.  “They’ve seen a pangolin.  Let’s go!”  We piled into our safari vehicles and made a mad dash into the bush.  Soon, we were at a site where two game wardens waited.  They pointed to a pangolin waddling slowly along the ground.  They were beaming, and we were astonished at our luck.  Seeing a pangolin is like winning the lottery.

Pangolin in Tanzania (photo by Larry Nielsen)

The pangolin, actually the eight species of pangolin found in Asia and Africa, is among the most endangered species in the world that you’ve probably never heard of.  According to the IUCN, all species are at least vulnerable, and most are endangered or critically endangered.  

Pangolins are small mammals, usually a foot or two long and weighing a few pounds, covered over their entire body with thick scales made of keratin (like fingernails).  Also called scaly anteaters, pangolins move slowly.  Their defense mechanism is to roll into a tight round ball, their sharp scales deterring all their natural predators.  They feed on ants and termites, using their long front claws to tear apart insect nests and termite mounds, then using their long, sticky tongues to lap up the exposed six-legged morsels.

A pangolin rolled into a ball for protection (photo by flowcomm)

They are protected from natural predators by rolling up and playing dead, but not from humans.  The various species are endangered because individual pangolins are so easily captured by humans.  And the over-exploitation is severe, with several species having been reduced in abundance by half in recent years.  Only about 50,000 individuals of all species combined live in Asia and Africa in total.  According to several sources, pangolins are the most illegally trafficked wildlife in the world.

And why?  Two reasons—tradition and greed.  First, traditional Chinese medicine considers the scales to have medicinal qualities, but those qualities, like so much of Chinese traditional medicine that utilizes animal parts, have no basis in fact.  Using them as medicine is like chewing your fingernails to get over cancer.  Second, some Asian cuisines consider pangolin meat a delicacy, served in the most exclusive and expensive restaurants.  To satisfy these two demands, poachers and smugglers have heavily exploited pangolins, first targeting populations in Asia and more recently in Africa.  And let’s not be complacent in the U.S.  Customs officials continue to intercept smuggled pangolin products coming into the U.S., several thousand cases per year.

The pangolin’s long, sticky tongue allows it to capture ants and termites efficiently (photo by Larry Nielsen)

The plight of pangolins has recently begun to get more attention, perhaps because of the work of one Rhishja Cota, an advocate for stopping the illegal wildlife trade.  She began World Pangolin Day in 2012, held on the third Saturday in February (the 18th in 2023).  Years ago, when I asked people if they ever heard of pangolins, the usual answer was “no.”  Today, however, a larger percentage is answering “yes.”  And then condemning what has been happening to these strange and vulnerable creatures.

May the fame of pangolins continue to grow around the world—and their fate change from endangered to beloved.


Annamiticus.  Our Story.  Available at: Accessed January 18, 2023.

Center for Biological Diversity.  Pangolins.  Available at: Accessed January 18, 2023.

Center for Biological Diversity.  2020.  U.S. Agrees to Decide Pangolin Protections.  Available at: Accessed January 18, 2023.

Cota, Rhishja.  World Pangolin Day.  Available at: Accessed January 18, 2023.

IUCN.  Pangolin.  International Union for the Conservation of Nature, Red List.  Available at: Accessed January 18, 2023.

This Month in Conservation

February 1
Afobaka Dam and Operation Gwamba (1964)
February 2
Groundhog Day
February 3
Spencer Fullerton Baird, First U.S. Fish Commissioner, Born (1823)
February 3
George Adamson, African Lion Rehabilitator, Born (1906)
February 4
Congress Overrides President Reagan’s Veto of Clean Water Act (1987)
February 5
National Wildlife Federation Created (1936)
February 6
Colin Murdoch, Inventor of the Tranquilizer Gun, Born (1929)
February 7
Karl August Mobius, Ecology Pioneer, Born (1825)
February 8
President Johnson Addresses Congress about Conservation (1965)
February 8
Lisa Perez Jackson, Environmental Leader, Born (1982)
February 9
U.S. Fish Commission Created (1871)
February 10
Frances Moore Lappe, author of Diet for a Small Planet, born (1944)
February 11
International Day of Women and Girls in Science
February 12
Judge Boldt Affirms Native American Fishing Rights (1974)
February 13
Thomas Malthus Born (1766)
February 14
Nature’s Faithful Lovers
February 15
Complete Human Genome Published (2001)
February 16
Kyoto Protocol, Controlling Greenhouse-Gas Emissions, Begins (2005)
February 16
Alvaro Ugalde, Father of Costa Rica’s National Parks, Born (1946)
February 17
Sombath Somphone, Laotian Environmentalist, Born (1952)
February 17
R. A. Fischer, Statistician, Born (1890)
February 18
World Pangolin Day
February 18
Julia Butterfly Hill, Tree-Sitter, Born (1974)
February 19
Lincoln Boyhood National Memorial Established (1962)
February 20
Ansel Adams, Nature Photographer, Born (1902)
February 21
Carolina Parakeet Goes Extinct (1918)
February 22
Nile Day
February 23
Italy’s Largest Inland Oil Spill (2010)
February 24
Joseph Banks, British Botanist, Born (1743)
February 25
First Federal Timber Act Passed (1799)
February 26
Four National Parks Established (1917-1929)
February 27
International Polar Bear Day
February 28
Watson and Crick Discover The Double Helix (1953)
February 29
Nature’s Famous Leapers
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