The Old World equivalent to the New World armadillos, pangolins are an order of small to medium-sized mammals notable for a densely scaled coat that makes them resemble giant pine cones. Although pangolins are strictly insectivorous, feeding almost entirely on termites and ants, they are less closely related to the superficially similar armadillos and anteaters than they are to the flesh-eating carnivores.

With a long tail, low-slung snout, and armor-like scaled coat, pangolins are totally unmistakable in their African and Asian range.

Species and sub species: Of eight recognized pangolin species, four are endemic to Africa. Most impressive is the giant pangolin, an equatorial rainforests species that weighs up to 75lb (comparable to an adult male Labrador). Half as heavy, the ground pangolin is the only species present in most of eastern and southern Africa.

Where to see Pangolin in Africa

Although the ground pangolin is widespread in eastern and southern Africa and occurs in most of the region’s national parks and other reserves, sightings are rare indeed, so much so that many safari guides living and working in areas where pangolins are present have never seen one. Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park and Tswalu Wildlife Reserve probably offer your best odds of a sighting.

Did you know?

  • Pangolin babies ride on their mother’s back, by hanging on to her scales.
  • Pangolins are the only mammals with scales. These scales are made up of keratin, the same as human hair, nails, and rhino horn.
  • Pangolins defend themselves by rolling into a ball.
  • The name Pangolin” comes from the Malay word “pengguling”  which means “something that rolls up”
  • A pangolin’s tongue is longer than its torso. Sometimes a long as 14 inches.  Its tongue is attached near its pelvis and the last pair of ribs — not in the mouth. When not in use, the tongue retracts deep inside a sheath in the animal’s chest cavity.

Regarded to be the world’s most trafficked animal, pangolins are poached for their meat but even more so for their scales, which are used in Chinese and Vietnamese traditional medicine. It’s been estimated that some 200,000 pangolins are captured annually, mostly in Asia, but also with increasing frequency in Africa. As a result, all four Asian species are IUCN listed as Endangered or Critically Endangered. The situation is slightly better in Africa, mainly due to a slightly lower level of habitat destruction, but only marginally so: here, the giant pangolin and tree pangolin are both listed as Endangered, while the official status of both the ground pangolin and long-tailed pangolin is Vulnerable. The secretive nature of all four African species makes it difficult to monitor them in the wild

Almost entirely nocturnal, pangolins end to move along the ground slowly and deliberately, looking for the termites and ants upon which they feed. When threatened, they curl up into a ball protected by their scales.

Pangolins are insectivorous. Most of their diet consists of various species of ants and termites and may be supplemented by other insects, especially larvae

Because they have no teeth, pangolins pick up food with their sticky tongues, which can sometimes reach lengths greater than the animal’s body.

Pangolins in each region will stick to mostly one or two species of insect, and eat those exclusively. They use their strong front claws to tear open termite mounds, and their long sticky tongues to retrieve the insects.

Little is known about the social structure of these secretive creatures other than they are habitually solitary and territorial. Adults generally only interact when mating, though mothers will nurse their cubs until they’re about six months old and can fend for themselves.v

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