In appearance, the pangolin's scaly body
reminds people of a walking pine cone or artichoke, but they serve a useful purpose. Made of keratin, the same material as in human fingernails, the scales offer protection when the pangolin curls up into a ball when threatened, and the scales themselves are sharp, providing extra defense.
But the body armour of the pangolin has not been able to offer much protection from their worst predator, man. Prey to poachers, it is estimated that over 1.0 million pangolin have been killed in the past 10 years, their meat and scales sold in Asian markets, usually in China and Vietnam.
Jonathan Baillie, the co-chair of the pangolin specialist group of the IUCN Species Survival Commission, in a statement from the International Union for Conservation of Nature
"In the 21st century we really should not be eating species to extinction, there is simply no excuse for allowing this illegal trade to continue. All eight pangolin species are now listed as threatened with extinction, largely because they are being traded to China and Vietnam."
The pangolin has been hunted and eaten in many parts of Africa for years. it is one of the more popular bush-meats. They are popular in China as a delicacy, and many Asians believe the scales of pangolins possessed medicinal powers, the same as rhino horns, capable of healing cancer, asthma and other diseases. As a matter of fact, the scaly anteater has become the world's most illegally traded mammal.
A week ago, officials in Vietnam confiscated 1.4 tons of dried pangolin scales
from a cargo ship from Africa. The scales came from the bodies of as many as 10,000 dead animals. Up until very recently, the IUCN's Red List of Threatened Species had listed two pangolin species as “endangered,” six as "near threatened," and two as "least concerned."
Now, two pangolin species, the Chinese pangolin (Manis pentadactyla) and the Sunda pangolin (M. javanica) are listed as "critically endangered." Two more, the Indian pangolin (M. crassicaudata) and the Philippine pangolin (M. culionensis) are now considered “endangered.” This leaves the four African species, and they are now listed as "vulnerable" to extinction.
Besides working with Chinese and Vietnamese authorities to dissuade the importing of pangolin scales, conservationists point to the the pangolin's place on the evolutionary scale as being distinct in its own right. Extinction would wipe out over 80 million years of evolutionary history.
The name "pangolin" comes from the Malay word "pengguling"
which means something that "rolls up." They are primarily insect eaters, preferring termites and ants, although they will sometimes eat larvae of insects. Pangolins were once grouped with anteaters, sloths and armadillos, but more recently, new genetic evidence indicated they should be grouped in with carnivores.