The Pangolin Needs Protection - "every Scale Counts"

17 Feb 2023


A pangolin in Namibia.
Photo: Liz Komen


Two local families and their friends from Austria had a rare and fascinating encounter on a camping tour in Namibia recently. The shy creature full of scales almost looks like a small dinosaur.

"Our tour guide told us it is a scaly ant eater, also called pangolin and that these animals have existed for millions of years but are endangered today", the ten year old son of the Austrian family told other children at the camping site, still excited from the experience.

"It looks like a small dinosaur", he added.

Indeed, the somewhat odd looking pangolin (of the order Pholidota) with its scaly armour reminds onlookers of ancient times on our planet.  They are the only mammals with scales and look like a walking pine cone.

Pangolins are mainly nocturnal and live on ants and termites. In this way they keep those populations in check.

When they sense danger, they quickly curl up; wrapping the tail round their body, face hidden. In this curled position they appear like a metal ball.

A curled-up Pangolin
Photo: Masteraah web


Lion cubs particularly enjoy rolling them around as if they are playing ball.

It is unfortunate that their scales, which consist of keratin, a substance also found in human fingernails and toe nails, are highly sought after in Asian countries, for medicinal reasons.

There is no scientific proof that pangolin scales have healing powers, yet pangolins are currently the most trafficked animals in the world. Their meat is regarded as a delicacy in Asian cooking.

Their large, overlapping keratin scales are of the same substance the horns of a rhinoceros are made of. Rhinos are also poached due to the mistaken belief in Asia, that their horns can be used for medicines.

A few quick facts about African pangolins

There are eight pangolin species, four in Asia and four in Africa. All of them are internationally listed as threatened.

In 2016, the 186 countries party to the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES), the treaty that regulates the international wildlife trade, voted to ban the commercial trade in pangolins from 2017 onwards.

A Pagolin scouraging for its next meal. 
Photo: Masteraah web


According to the Namibian Chamber of Environment (NCE), only one species of pangolin occurs in Namibia, the Temminck's ground pangolin (Smutsia temminckii), also known as the Cape pangolin or the scaly ant eater. It is also declared vulnerable on the Red List of Threatened Species of the

International Union for Conservation of Nature.

According to Wikipedia, the name "pangolin" comes from the Malay word pengguling meaning "one who rolls up and guling or giling.

Pangolins do not have teeth, they rely on their tongue to collect ants and termites after scratching open ant nests and termite mounds with their strong front paws, which have long claws.

It is unknown how long long pangolins live. They are solitary animals, mate once a year and the females usually give birth to one offspring, which is carried on the back of its mother in the first few weeks.  The 'restricted "diet of pangolins makes it difficult to feed them in transition, once they are confiscated from smugglers and before they can be released in a secure, new environment.

Protection for pangolins in Namibia

"The protection and conservation of pangolins in Namibia is thus a complex and urgent business that requires linked-up collaboration from many organisations. These range from rural communities and farmers to law enforcement agencies, informers, nature conservation officials, veterinarians, rehabilitation facilities, researchers, non-governmental conservation organisations and donors," writes US-scientist Kelsey Prediger, who started the "Pangolin Conservation and Research Foundation" in Namibia a few years ago.

Her research includes satellite tracking of several pangolins in Namibia.

The Ministry of Environment, Forestry and Tourism (MEFT) identified the need for a Namibian Pangolin Working Group (NPWG) as part of Namibia’s five-year national security strategy to address wildlife crime. It was set up in April 2020, including private sector representation. The NPWG Namibian Pangolin Working Group (NPWG) coordinates and drives pangolin conservation and research in Namibia.

The official poster requesting the public to help curb illegal activities involving pangolins.
Poster: NPWG


"(Live) pangolins that are seized from illegal traffickers are often emaciated, dehydrated and traumatised, according to Prediger."They require first aid from the time of seizure and specialised care up until their release to give them the greatest chances of survival."

As such, the NPWG set clear guidelines for pangolin transport, care and rehabilitation along with contact lists for veterinary clinics and other relevant organisations. This information was distributed to all 14 regions along with a training curriculum aimed at first-responders from the MEFT and the Namibian Police Force (NAMPOL). "The first training session was held in November 2020 for approximately 40 nature conservation officers covering pangolin ecology and first-response measures for seized pangolins," according to Prediger.

More training is continuing.

The Namibian Chamber of Environment and the environmental Rooikat Trust have donated pangolin transport boxes. This is to ensure that all regions have a safe place to hold and transfer live confiscated pangolins.

The two organisations also established a pangolin emergency fund to support the cost of veterinary care and rehabilitation for rescued pangolins.

A lot of effort, time and money are going towards the rescue, survival and protection of the pangolins in Namibia, setting a good example for other African countries.

 Involving the youth and visual art

A recent project with secondary school children has not only reaped praise, but also raised awareness for the plight of the pangolin.

Steered by the environmental expert Liz Komen with support by the MEFT and donors, an informative package about pangolins was sent to secondary school students last year as part of an invitation to take part in a creative writing project. The theme was "Let Every Scale Count – Pangolin and Wildlife Crime".

"To show how pangolins and wildlife crime relate to the Namibian curriculum, we placed each of the secondary school subjects into one or more environmental pillars: cultural, social, economic, political and natural" wrote Komen on the online platform Namibia Conservation.

This poster invited teenagers in secondary schools to take part in an essay competition in 2022.
Source: NPWG


Youngsters from 36 schools in 11 of Namibia's regions submitted over 160 essays and the best ones received awards.

Parallel to that an art exhibition was organised at the gallery of the Namibia Arts Association in Windhoek. Artists in Namibia were invited to submit artworks on the theme.

These projects definitely increased public awareness.

World Pangolin Day in February

In order to raise more awareness and to collect donations for the protection of pangolins, an international day for the pangolin was declared a few years ago.

It is held every third Saturday in February.

This year it was the 18th of February. In Namibia it took place in the form of an information and fun day for the whole family at the Avis dam just outside Windhoek.

Brigitte Weidlich

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